Wednesday, June 13, 2018

How Green is my Cabaret: Ireland’s RIOT at Luminato

RIOT runs until June 16 in Toronto. (Photo: Fiona Morgan)

RIOT, the hit Irish variety show kicking up a storm at this year’s Luminato festival, is just that: a riotously varied free-for-all that’s funny, subversive and wildly entertaining. Created and directed by Jennifer Jennings and Philip McMahon, founders of the Irish theatre company, Thisispopbaby, the globe-trotting sensation debuted at the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2016 and is now in Toronto for 18 shows, concluding June 16 at the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre. You’ll likely have to riot to get tickets as strong word of mouth has made them extremely popular. The reason is simple.

The 100-minute feel-good cabaret makes you laugh. It also covers a lot of bases. A drag show, circus act, slapstick comedy routine, poetry slam, striptease, dance and singing performance all rolled up into one, RIOT occupies a post-Riverdance world where Irish culture is not some twilighty Celtic vision, but more a mish-mash of homegrown as well as global influences including homosexuality and Marxist-tinged feminism – Ireland as it is today.

Irreverent and ribald, the new Emerald Isle has a Queen and her name is Panti Bliss, a six-foot-tall cross-dressing artiste who emcees a show in which a bare-assed contortionist goes bottoms up and a bleeding loin-clothed Jesus gets a whipping from select members of the audience brandishing Styrofoam noodles as gladiatorial weapons. Panti spreads the gospel of love in all its permutations. Fearless inclusivity is the underlying message of a no-holds-barred script that includes a topical address to the abortion referendum whose historic landslide vote on May 26 has just succeeded in pushing Ireland beyond the all-encompassing control of the Catholic Church.

Cian Kinsella and Cormac Mohally, aka Lords of Strut. (Photo: Conor Horgan)

And yet Christianity prevails in a tarted-up kind of way to inspire an all-forgiving spirit of community. RIOT is a communion of resistance against complacency and the forces of oppression but delivered in a palatably ironic way. Kitsch rules supreme as a form of rebellion against staid ways of looking at Ireland and Irish culture.

Over-the-top outrageous are comedians Cian Kinsella and Cormac Mohally, the two '80s Spandex-clad halves of a Lord of the Dance parodic ensemble called Lords of Strut, with manic acrobatic maneuvers which are pure hilarity. Their dance is a kind of running gag. Just as inventive are champion Irish dancers Peter Harding and Suzanne Cleary, members of the dancing duo Up and Over It, who perform the rapid high-stepping rhythms of Irish step dancing with their hands on a table top. Exactness of delivery also characterizes Irish actress Kate Brennan’s several performances of politically tinged street poetry (the original text is by Panti and Irish writer and actor Emmet Kirwan) that reinvents Irish bardic traditions for contemporary times.

Rounding out the cast is Ronan Brady, the quite extraordinary former Roscommon footballer-turned-physical artist who glides through the air performing aerial dances on silk ropes when not whirling round on stage inside a giant hoop whose gyrations make him look a spinning Celtic Cross. Also soaring high are the songs of joy and social activism which composer Alma Kelliher sings with fellow vocalists Nicola Kavanagh, Adams Matthews and Megan Riordan. Supporting it all is Niall Sweeney’s thrust stage set and Mark Galione’s lighting design, which combines cell-phone illumination and twirling disco balls to create a cosmic starshine that has all eyes – Irish and otherwise – smiling.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for the last 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic, from 1985 until 2001, before transitioning to the Style section as its senior fashion reporter in Milan, Paris, New York and cities across Canada. Her other accomplishments at Canada's paper of record include stints as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime, a weekly lifestyle columnist covering the Toronto International Film Festival and celebrities, rock critic, business writer and cultural bureau chief in Montreal covering the arts in Quebec and Eastern Canada. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style. In 2017, she joined Toronto’s York University as Editor of the award-winning York University Magazine.

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