STAGING A PANTI RIOT
Rory O’Neill’s drag alter ego – a national treasure in Ireland – helps launch Luminato
RIOT by Jennifer Jennings and Phillip McMahon (THISISPOPBABY/Luminato). At the Festival Cabaret Room, Canadian Opera Company (227 Front East). Runs to June 16. From $39-$60.37. luminato.com.
Over the phone from Dublin, Rory “Panti Bliss” O’Neill describes the buoyant mood in Ireland following the recent historic referendum around abortion rights.
“Alongside the legalization of samesex marriage five years ago, this feels like change,” he tells me. “People are euphoric.”
RIOT, the multidisciplinary cabaret emceed by O’Neill as his drag queen alter ego Panti and opening this year’s Luminato taps right into that yearning for change.
“A lot of the stuff in the show is about standing up and changing the world,” says O’Neill, who is a co-writer. “It’s
about reacting against things you are not happy with and using your power for revolution. A lot of it is about women. It just seems to have extra resonance now. Turns out we were bloody psychic when we were writing it.”
RIOT was conceived in 2016 to honour the centenary of the Easter Uprising, a people’s rebellion during which Ireland fought for its independence from Britain. O’Neill says the creative team also took inspiration from the raucous history of vaudeville and aspects of the late-19th-century Celtic revival of Irish art forms.
Produced and directed by Dublinbased THISISPOPBABY (Jennifer Jennings and Phillip McMahon), it’s a spirited assembly of Irish talent – from the comic dance duo Lords of Strut to acclaimed writer/actor Emmett Kerwin and his hard narratives about tough lives.
O’Neill’s role as emcee is mostly scripted as Panti handles the rapidfire transitions from high to low cul-
“RIOT is about reacting against things you aren’t happy with and using your power for revolution.”
ture, silly fun to righteous protest. But there are also moments when he is permitted to indulge his own special gift of the gab to improvise devastating one-liners and overthe-top rants.
“Drag queens have a special place in the gay community,” O’Neill points out. “They usually have a microphone in their hand, so drag queen voices are naturally amplified.”
Over the past three decades, O’Neill’s Panti persona has evolved into a wide-eyed, wasp-waisted, unsettlingly articulate and mediasavvy glamazon.
Refined by early exposure to the daring transformations of legendary performance artist Leigh Bowery in London (“he was a close friend of my older brother”) and years spent creating drag shows for the club circuit, Panti now owns her own bar (PantiBar in Dublin) and is a popular purveyor of snappy monologue performances for the international theatre festival circuit.
More important, she’s played a larger-than-life role in the dogged activism that is opening up the conservative Ireland of O’Neill’s youth in tiny Ballinrobe, County Mayo.
Although Panti is considered a bona fide national treasure in Ireland, the Queen of Ireland, revered as an advocate for gay rights, O’Neill humbly calls himself an “accidental” activist.
“I wasn’t setting out with some grand plan to change things for all the gay people in Ireland. It wasn’t as altruistic as that,” he points out. “Every now and then I would come up against an obstacle in my way and it would just annoy me. It just so happens that activating for myself also activates for people who are like me.”
That DIY Panti spirit is the method behind RIOT’s theatrical madness. On paper, O’Neill says, the wild variety of acts seem like they shouldn’t hang together.
Yet in RIOT, he suggests, they cohere to serve a revolution whose time may have finally come.
Rory O’Neill, aka Panti Bliss, says RIOT is about standing up and changing the world.