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Review: PANTI BLISS: IF THESE WIGS COULD TALK at Solas Nua and Studio Theatre

All hail the queen, who leads with love and a steely sense of purpose.

By: Jun. 30, 2024
Review: PANTI BLISS: IF THESE WIGS COULD TALK at Solas Nua and Studio Theatre  Image
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The “Queen of Ireland” has been kind enough to grace us with her presence, and we should all be so lucky as to bask in it at the Studio Theatre.

Okay, so Panti Bliss may not be literal royalty, but the 2015 documentary is relevant to her story, and there’s certainly something awe-inducing about her when she holds court in Studio’s small black box, courtesy of a partnership with Solas Nua, in collaboration with THISISPOPBABY and Ireland’s national theatre, The Abbey Theatre.

Clad in envy-inducing bejeweled heels, a form-fitting full-sequin cocktail dress, and one of her signature blonde wigs, famed Irish drag queen Panti Bliss leads the audience on an emotionally satisfying journey in her one-woman show, If These Wigs Could Talk. Through tales of mad capers, stories about her loved ones, and reflections on the evolution of the queer movement and the role of drag, Panti walks the audience through her own internal journey as she considers the role she’s played over the years and where she fits in today’s modern landscape.

With the ease of a practiced performer who enjoys her work, Panti Bliss creates a show that is captivating from the moment she steps out onto the stage. She speaks conversationally, often hilariously, with a guileless manner that immediately charms the audience and makes it feel as though this performance is an interesting conversation with a friend rather than a cleverly written and rehearsed routine. Her ability to work and interact with the audience, to adjust for responses, also makes it feel particularly intimate and personal – which makes sense, since she is baring her soul with some deeply personal stories and perspectives. But there’s a charming element to Panti’s stage presence that’s undeniable and captivating, and her storytelling draws the viewer in while also keeping an air of her joy even through the more intense pieces of her history.

When she entered the drag scene in Ireland in the late 1980s, drag was an act of anger, protest, and “glorious nonsense.” Today, Panti marvels, she’s now a “grande dame of drag,” regularly in consultation with the Taoiseach’s office and serving as a cultural ambassador for the country that once criminalized and ostracized her and those like her. Drag has evolved from a messy act of defiance in basement bars to polished, packaged mainstream entertainment, and its audience has evolved as well, moving from underground queer spaces to reality television, popular brunch spots, and even children’s story time at local libraries. The causes she fought for – decriminalization, marriage equality, and overall acceptance – have largely been successful; Panti emotionally recalls the celebration of the passage of same-sex marriage at Dublin Castle – a far cry from the shadowy world where she started her advocacy. Throughout her performance, Panti continuously questions her value in today’s landscape, asking the audience, “What am I for now?”

These deep musings are balanced not only by Panti’s more lighthearted stories and effervescent delivery, but also by the simple, but effective, production elements. Molly O’Cathain’s set design is a classy twist on the typical set for one-person performances: a deep blue curtain, a single table with a striking lamp, and a neon sign spelling out Panti’s name – with a signature heart for the dot on the “i,” of course. James David Seaver’s sparkling costumes shine under the clever lighting, designed by Sinéad McKenna and overseen on the tour by Suzie Cummins. Jenny O’Malley punctuates Panti’s tales with her brilliant sound design, often using elements of humor to lighten moments or music to underscore notable events. The live aspect also allows the team to show their cleverness; when a sound cue was missed, Panti, the consummate performer, turned into a separate laugh in its own right, showing off the attitude that built her career.

Review: PANTI BLISS: IF THESE WIGS COULD TALK at Solas Nua and Studio Theatre  Image

The clean production elements also underline one of Panti’s main arcs. She’s gone from revolutionary to mainstream; from an outside advocate to a comfortable entertainer. Her concerns about her role today aren’t unfounded, but she finds her answers in her own story, and in the stories shared with her. She reflects on meeting queer people in countries where their rights are still denied, and recognizes that she can be a beacon of hope, a glimpse of the future they can have. She also marvels at the progress she can see in even her own hometown, noting that her work has cleared the way for younger generations to live openly without fear, and to take part in something like drag out of joy and exploration rather than anger and protest (though they should still know who Diana Ross is). But, most of all, she reflects on the value she brings by being old enough to remember where the community came from, and for having the ability to recognize and fight against attempts to undo that progress.

“I’m for the same thing I have always been for,” she concludes. “To stand in front of those who would drag us back and tell them to go f**k themselves.”

All hail the queen, who leads with love and a steely sense of purpose. And chases it all with a well-earned drink.

Panti Bliss: If These Wigs Could Talk is a co-production of Solas Nua and Studio Theatre in Washington, DC, presented in partnership with THISISPOPBABY and Abbey Theatre Production, with support from Culture Ireland. This performance is the last stop of the North American Tour of If These Wigs Could Talk, and runs for select performances through July 7th. Production run time is approximately 75 minutes with no intermission. Trigger warnings for discussions of homophobia, violence against the queer community, references to suicide and the AIDS crisis, and explicit language. Additional information, including performance dates and tickets, can be found on the Studio Theatre website.

Photo Credits: Panti Bliss: If These Wigs Could Talk; Solas Nua / Studio Theatre / THISISPOPBABY / Abbey Theatre; Photos by Ruth Medjber


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