HOT! Festival: Old Queen & Make It Bigger

Now in its 18th year, the HOT! Festival of LGBT Performance and Culture offers a diverse and intriguing selection of queer artists in residence at Dixon Place and other downtown venues through July. Festival director Earl Dax has assembled a rich assortment of performances with the aim of providing "a point of convergence where queer people from all five boroughs come together to be entertained, educated, challenged, and inspired." Placing downtown performance veteran Penny Arcade at the center is an insightful choice; her new work-in-progress Old Queen not only raises consciousness of previous generations of gay artists but also provides a valuable framework to look at the other shows in the festival.

Old Queen is Arcade's attempt to fathom the loss of a gay culture that is mostly gone, due in part to the ravages of AIDS, as well as the social and economic trends of the last 20 years. The free-spirited gay subculture that celebrated individuality, creativity, and intelligence is now almost entirely a memory—one that Arcade is determined to preserve. Arcade creates her pieces improvisationally, in front of an audience, so seeing any of the nine performances of Old Queen is a chance to watch—and participate in—a step of her creative process. She values the artistically engaged audience as an important component of her work, and there's a sense that she is watching you as carefully as you're watching her.

I saw the first of her nine performances, which focused mostly on memories of her adolescence—breaking away from her strict, superstitious immigrant family and finding her way into the gay world as a teenage fag hag (a term Arcade embraces with pride). The format was personal stories told in a casual and often funny anecdotal style, recalling her experiences as a teenage runaway, in reform school, and escaping to (and living in) Provincetown with the first group of older gay men who befriended her. Throughout the piece, co-creator and musical designer Steve Zehentner provided pitch-perfect musical selections to conjure the eras and heighten the mood of the memories.

Arcade also interspersed theatricalized moments. Wearing black velvet and sipping champagne, she played a kind of female Noel Coward, drolly lamenting the disappearance of gay men who cared about wit and culture, for whom "if you were only beautiful, you were considered a trick." Meanwhile, her young pianist, Eric Leach listened with a polite insouciance that suggested his entire generation's indifference. In a later multimedia segment, Arcade preached her own version of the gospel, in which Christ and his disciples are gay and the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene are fag hags. Point well taken—the Christian right manipulates the gospels for their ends, so why shouldn't we?—but perhaps this was (literally) preaching to the choir.

If the improvised format is loose, the ideas are sharp. Employing her outsider's perspective—a working-class Italian girl who discovered kinship with older gay men—she offers clarity and an edge to feelings that might be self-pitying if delivered by an actual "old queen." Arcade may be the gay man's Linda Loman, demanding that attention be paid and implicitly scolding later generations for betraying our forefathers. She came up (and out) with a generation of gay men for whom the personal and political were inseparable in the fight to express their sexual identity. If these men and their world are going, going, gone, Arcade requests our presence at their post mortem.

The HOT! Festival's very location, the comfortable, well-appointed NEW Dixon Place, provides an interesting context for Arcade's material. Those of us who remember the homegrown, grass roots atmosphere of the previous Dixon Place a few blocks uptown have witnessed at least some of the cultural erosion that is redefining New York. Yes, the new space provides a great resource for performers and audiences, but it lacks the funky energy of its predecessor. So how do we honor the memories of the past, and at the same time, move forward to create in the future?

That question was in the front of my mind as I went into Jeffrey and Cole's Make It Bigger!, which represents a brand new generation of gay artists with radically different values, assumptions, and priorities. They are smart and self-aware, totally ironic, and they inhabit a world where gay sexuality is such a given there's nothing to say about it. As for politics—uhm, what's that? If Arcade is the last old queen, holding court as she invokes the ghosts of queens past, Jeffrey Self and Cole Escola are precocious princesses, entertaining themselves—and us—in their playroom.

The savvy comic duo known as VGL Boys achieved online notoriety though a series of prankish YouTube vignettes prior to being picked up by Logo for their own show, Jeffrey and Cole Casserole. Their quirky videos suggest a live-action version of Ernie and Bert from Sesame Street: buddies trapped together on the small screen, with constantly amusing results. Cole is an endearing, impish joker, always pursuing a new idea or prank to the consternation of bookishly handsome, dry-as-a-biscuit Jeff.

In their live show, the stakes are not politics, identity, or culture (except the popular kind), but personal success—which in these times is can ONLY mean celebrity. With a few props and clothing pieces, the boys zanily enact a parody of the familiar Tinseltown scenario: struggling performers are seduced by the temptations of Hollywood, where together—then separately—they rise to fame and fall, ultimately discovering what really counts is their friendship. Although referencing old movie plots and musical numbers, their writing is vibrant and cliche-free. They are endearing performers who, from the opening moment to the final blackout, never lose their infectious energy.

Looking at the silliness of the youthful VGL Boys in relation to Arcade's passionate convictions, I'm not sure whether Jeff and Cole are commenting on the vacuity of their generation, or simply embodying it. As the new breed of gay boy, the grandchildren of the old queens, do they see themselves in the context of a historical continuum, and do they feel any connection their gay forefathers? No doubt they will be a fixture of the New York performance scene, and we'll have a chance to enjoy more of their work; I look forward to watching them develop and to a better understanding of what they ultimately stand for. And I tip my hat to Dax for placing such diverse artists in such close proximity and inviting us to consider the connections in their work.