The smoldering chandeliers and the strings of fire-red lights bath the Project Space Upstairs in an eerie glow. In a massive scrawl the name ‘Panti’ is spread before us on the stage floor, topped with a dainty heart, the kind of self-conscious signature one would find on the side of a celebrity’s marketed bottle of perfume. The lights are lowered, the thumping pulse of unoffending techno is cascaded over the audience, and the image of our hostess is emblazoned on the wall in stuttering projections. This doesn’t seem like the beginning of a tearful, gut-wrenching tell-all about a boy growing up in Mayo who sheds the strictures of Catholic Ireland in favor of pumps and costume jewelry.
The territory of heartrending confessions is avoided at all costs in Panti’s one-person show and thankfully so. Panti herself has nothing to confess, except perhaps that she has no regrets in traversing the minefield of Irish cultural and sexual politics at the turn of the 21st century and coming through relatively unscathed. Indeed, she played a very active role in helping to blow apart preconceptions regarding sexual orientation and gender in an Ireland still having trouble shaking off its fetishistic internalization of Catholic dogma. Beginning with her witnessing as a young boy the Pope’s visit in 1979, Panti attempts to chart for us the landscape of her self-creation into a legendary Irish drag queen.
Panti herself is an entirely engrossing and charming presence, at once implacably brazen and unexpectedly vulnerable. Her very first utterance to the audience, as she paced the stage like a socialite eager to make our acquaintance, was the admission that she was utterly three sheets to the wind. It’s the explosive possibility of what she may say or do next that engaged the audience immediately, and it’s unfortunate that the piece’s dramaturgy seems hell-bent on attempting to stifle Panti’s instincts to fly off the cuff. It was too easy to distinguish the under-rehearsed, scripted portions of the play from Panti’s sharp and playful adlibs. This was awkwardly underscored during the two times Panti was forced to call out to director Phillip McMahon in order to find her place in the script. While a very a patient and gracious audience easily forgave these lapses in discipline, they were nonetheless blatant enough to evoke the odd involuntary cringe.
The life Panti paints for us is the portrait of the artist as a young, gay iconoclast, tearing to shreds a stultifying childhood and rebuilding herself in her own glorious image. From boarding school to the Dun Laoghaire School of Art and Design, Panti sloughs off her former provincial identity for ‘wigs and false eye lashes’, eventually abandoning Ireland and ending up as part of the Tokyo club scene of the early 90s. This particular sequence does justify McMahon’s insistence on multimedia to buoy the show. As Panti watches in near darkness, we’re introduced to the flickering images of her younger self ably dancing in a mist-filled club, her fluidity of movement contrasted painfully with the older performer now standing before us. This kind of arresting simplicity is the exception, though; structurally we’re given a fairly plain narrative told through the device of letters from Panti to her younger self. Certainly the content of these missives is moving, but their delivery and uninspired placement within the piece undermine their impact. After two or three readings, we’ve essentially got the gist of them in terms of content and structure, and they hardly offer any kind of startling revelation.
In the end what we’re presented with is a seemingly tame staged version of a personality that has insisted to us she doesn’t follow the script, in spite of the rote delivery of what should be an inspiring narrative. Only near the end of the play do we get a sense of the fire and driving passion we’d only been told about up to then. Taking to task what she terms the ‘new gay’, Panti bemoans the loss of the more vibrant and confrontational gay culture that embraced her. To Panti, the newer generation of Irish homosexuals favor of a sort of sexless, suburbanized existence. Ironically, in this moment it’s the video representation of Panti railing against the inequality of marriage laws in the Irish Republic who gets our blood rushing, displaying the verve and passion that the present Panti has been lacking. While Panti admits that she ‘doesn’t deal well with people’s expectations’, this show doesn’t go nearly far enough in defying them.