A Not So Zen Arcade
Like the amusement of her adopted name, Penny Arcade offers a reasonable amount of low-rent razzle-dazzle and whizbang for the buck. In New York Values (P.S.122), she delivers her rants and raps ringed by a chorus of go-go boys and girls, illuminated by spots, magnified by live video, and backed by a rock ‘n’ roll soundscape. She disses downtown’s gentrification and dismisses the co-opting of bohemia, yet amid the wrath and raving Arcade forgets a crucial fact: her sympathetic audience. She spits out her spite as though she expects challenge and contradiction—someone ought to tell her she’s preaching to the choir. While Arcade’s sort of ministry may be affirming and congratulatory, it shouldn’t be called provocative.
Nor should it be called timely. The sections on Giuliani’s revival of the cabaret laws and the Disneyfication of Times Square seem to have been lifted piecemeal from a 1997 time capsule (she even has a Monica Lewinsky joke). And her glitter-coated chorus is dubbed the JonBenét Ramsey memorial dancers. Nevertheless, she does manage the occasional acute observation, such as, “An artist’s decline can be computed by the number of hours they spend drinking coffee in a café.”
Of course, discussing Arcade’s material is almost beside the point. She’s attracted a following not for what she says (the people she quotes in her show—John Vaccaro, Jack Smith, Quentin Crisp—have all said it before and better), but for who she is: a dizzy autodidact with big boobs and a mean streak. Even at 51, she still looks devastatingly cute in décolletage and mouse ears. As Crisp told her, “Age is kind to the nonconformist.” It’s a pity her repetitive material isn’t aging as well as her rack—it’s not every arcade game that comes with its own built-in replay. —Alexis Soloski
The Subject Was Poses
At the beginning of Lapis Blue Blood Red (Here), Cathy Caplan’s consideration of baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi’s baroque history, a character emerges to mention the few details “we have to reconstruct a life.” These include the painter’s letters. (She was illiterate; daughter Prudenza quilled much of her correspondence.) They also include the transcript from the painter Agostino Tassi’s trial on charges he raped Artemisia in her father’s studio when she was 18. (He was convicted, but only served eight months.)
Perhaps these artifacts are sufficient material from which to reconstruct a life, but Caplan hasn’t succeeded. While the painter was an accomplished Caravaggio disciple and skilled at dramatic depictions of intense situations, Caplan’s script resembles a sketch for a larger, more complex work. The play, directed by Paul Smithyman, shuttles between Artemisia’s Naples studio in 1638 and Orazio Gentileschi’s atelier in Rome, where daughter Artemisia was turning out astonishing works. Throughout, the middle-aged Gentileschi alternates with the young Gentileschi at grappling with volatile family matters and intricate career concerns.
Caplan’s main theme is parent-child conflict. After the timidly written rape scene, father Orazio is shown as angrier at his daughter for having allowed it to happen than at Tassi. Years later, Artemisia transfers her resentment to Prudenza but eventually sees the error of her ways. The high-pitched events, however, don’t so much swirl around theatrical figures as unravel amid a bunch of cranks.
Perhaps the best moment is a throwaway: Artemisia at 45 jokes that her lucrative Judith-beheads-Holofernes canvases are often taken for revenge paintings. This, she implies, is jake with her. Meg Gibson, as the mature Artemisia, emotes with a fiery realism that escapes the rest of the cast. Costumer Loren Bevans gets it right, and lighting designer Tyler Micoleau plots convincing 17th-century chiaroscuro. —David Finkle
Split Britches’ Twofer
Was Mae West really a man? That old wives’ tale will probably never die, since our little chickadee was indisputably a drag queen (king?), resplendent in a feathers-and-sequins parody of femininity. Forever tonguing her latest dirty pun, swaggering about like she was the one with a pistol in her pocket, West always carried the air of a bulldagger in a china-doll shop, and so does Lois Weaver in “Miss Risqué,” the first half of Double Agency (La MaMa), a diptych on thwarted desire. As a zaftig showgirl with an underwear drawer full of military secrets, Weaver is part Mata Hari, part Diamond Lou in She Done Him Wrong: less seductive than assumptive of her prey, and unrepentant even in the face of death. She’s hotly pursued by a shambling covert operator—a G-man who’s not, played with earnest puppy-dog ardor by Peggy Shaw (who writes and acts with Weaver as the duo Split Britches, a French & Saunders for the downtown sapphist). The epicene detective auditions for the role as her partner onstage and off; once these consummate performance artists hit the boards, the meta-theatrical fur starts to fly.
Fixated on Identity’s many evasion tactics, “Miss Risqué” fills its Intro to Queer Theory outline with little more than double entendres (cue the opening song, in which the worldly title character puts the cunt back in continental). This pair of Britches is obviously under-rehearsed; they step on each other’s lines and negotiate La MaMa’s desolate space uncertainly. Part two, “It’s a Small House and We’ve Lived in It Always,” finds fickle domestic partners pacing under the same roof, alternately seeking affection and solitude, though rarely at the same time. Petering out with this wan, draggy actor’s exercise, Double Agency smells of the workshop—a conceptual costume drama that needed plenty more time at the seamstress. —Jessica Winter