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. lu­mi­

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.

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