Queer underground survivor and superstar Penny Arcade has made a deliciously vibratory experience for all whores, feminists, fags, dykes, faghags, and the people who love (or pay) them. Appropriately the performance is titled, BITCH! DYKE! FAGHAG! WHORE! An ever-evolving vaudevillian ritual spectacle, the work was born during the sex and censorship wars of the 80’s, but is updated and adapted to today’s San Francisco.
Penny is backed by a chorus of ten saucy strippers and go go dancers who surround the audience on a series of platforms. Men and women, boys and girls, these young people are already masters of sleazy representation, coy flirtation, and camp erotica. Depending on your mood or preference you might find the burlesque seductive or provocative, titillating or even inappropriate. But whether it’s lust in your pants or morals on your mind, consider these scantily clad crotch hounds as temple dancers making the stage holy for Penny’s mythic storytelling, political ranting, and erotic preaching.
B!D!F!W! is about history and love and intimacy and the struggle to survive. It is about the importance of sexual energy liberated from hypocrisy and marketplace. The show is long and probably too much. But it’s gay honey, and gay liberation is intended to be too much. In fact, it’s super gay, over the top, excessive, and even includes the very gay songs, "I will survive" and "We are family", with and without and ironic wink wink.
Calling for a new language that is neither politically nor academically correct, B!D!F!W! embodies the histories of the last 30 to 40 years of LGBT activism and queer theater/performance. Walking us through the 70s we visit the queens and queers of the avant-garde who adopted Penny as a wayward teen faghag. Then we visit a very late 70s militant separatist lesbian land where men can’t even touch a toe and gossip rides the winds of patchouli. We know the 80s are coming and still it’s a painful shock when Penny’s friends start to die. Three hundred of them. Her grief and rage are tempered with the wisdom of survival, even as her intense feelings extend from her body to awaken in our own. The stripper chorus, too young to have been there, become the queer kids at drag momma’s feet, still, attentive, grateful, and sad.
Penny can speak to loneliness and devastation, isolation and rejection, without drowning us (or herself). She’s hilarious and occasionally dangerous. Prepping for a righteous finale state of the union address, Penny proudly strips and teases her hot aging body to a film of Wooster legend Ron Vawter being Lenny Bruce. The juxtaposition is punk, fierce. Queering the stage in many ways, she switches genres from 80’s performance to Laugh-In standup to burlesque Happening. My favorite moment was when she held my hand in the dark, while bragging that her unique gift to performance history is simply turning all the lights out and hanging out with the audience. A long monologue by seven-year old Penny, chatting lesbian histories while her legs swing from a bench too high for her feet to touch the ground, was probably the only scene that I wished were shorter. B!D!F!W! is wildly imperfect, contradictory and eccentric which is exactly what allows all the love, intimacy, political liberation, and sexual healing to be available to any audience willing to receive.
My buddy Neil and I left the show sensing that our own intimacy had shifted, that we felt more comfortable and friendly with others in the audience on the way out. Maybe that doesn’t turn you on. Maybe that won’t happen. I felt more alive and more sexual; more inspired to take bold action and fondle more ass.