New York

Penny Arcade, Deborah Margolin

The Knitting Factory

Penny Arcade and Deborah Margolin are two artists who, despite important differences, share similar approaches to performance. Margolin began hers by asking the audience for feedback about the way she was dressed. Arcade, who followed Margolin, began by getting her appearance ready while she addressed the audience. When Margolin left the stage and sat in the audience, Arcade, coming on stage from the audience, sardonically complimented her. They carried on a sassy exchange about differences in their work, their appearances, and their backgrounds. Part of the audience’s enjoyment came from the crossing of this line between “who’s on” and “who’s watching.” Both performers brought to the surface the audience’s relationship to performance by a kind of scrambling of who—audience or performers—see themselves projected in the other.

Margolin played the Supreme Court,comically undermining the potential seriousness of this role by intermittently singing various popular songs (the slightly dated kind that get played on “lite” radio stations) and cracking peanuts with her judicial gavel. She munched and spit out shells as an imaginary law clerk read through the court’s docket, which consisted mostly of cases concerning the rights of women and minorities. Margolin emphasized the court’s power not to hear, as well as its own preoccupation with who’s watching. At one point, she described going on a date with Seperashanov Churchanstayt (separation of church and state), whom she agreed to call “Sepi.” Various odd but poignant details came to light as the Supreme Court spoke to her imaginary date. By thus endowing this presumed-to-be rational body with a vigorous subconscious, she deepened the effect of her work, even while counterpointing this seriousness with another rendition of an upbeat tune.

Arcade’s performance was based on a character from “real life”: a prostitute from New Orleans named Charlene, who has undergone plastic surgery to keep her looks saleable and who describes to the audience how she feels in her new skin. Arcade makes her voice hoarse and holds her face in a mask to play Charlene. It is a mark of how effective Arcade’s performance is that Charlene’s mask of plastic surgery becomes a source of revelation, even as it is meant to hide. Both performers exhibited a self-awareness about the kind of “splitting” effect that takes place when a performer is seen on stage while calculating the effect of her appearance. Margolin played more with internal/external differences in her persona, while Arcade played a character concerned and amused with this “inside-outside” aspect of her own life and where it had gotten her.

Richard C. Ledes