Encompassing a wild mixture of singing, step-dancing, acrobatics, drag comedy, and spoken word performance, RIOT, a creation of the Irish performance troupe THISISPOPBABY, mixes spectacle with shades of politics with mixed results, despite the efforts of a talented cast and a measure of visual flair.
The fascinating thing about RIOT, playing for three shows only this weekend at NYU Skirball, is how hard it is to pin down quite what it wants to be. One moment, acclaimed drag queen Panti is bringing down the house with a classic Hollywood lip-synch. The next, Emmet Kirwan (an Irish spoken word poet in the style of Lin-Manuel Miranda) is cranking up the heat with a tense political monologue. Interspersed are the spandex-clad Lords of Strut (a dance duo), aerialist-acrobat Ronan Brady, and a handful of other gleefully eccentric performers whom my theatergoing companion fittingly dubbed “Ireland’s got talent.”
The colors, the lights, the music – and the set, comprised of a grouping of umbrellas viewed from below – all scream, and I mean scream, “fun.” And each act, it must be said, has its charms. But the cumulative effect lacks structure and, seemingly, intent. Is RIOT, as its title suggests, aiming to stir up social consciousness? If so, it merely skims the surface, teasing out strands of political messaging but without a clear-cut message beyond the usual “be yourself” platitudes.
More care could have gone into the structure of the evening’s entertainment. Kirwan’s rapidfire delivery is impressive at first listen, but later interludes, featuring occasionally obscure local subjects, begin to grate. And Panti (a highlight in general), has the unfortunate task of delivering a mostly-dramatic hippie-dippy monologue about self-acceptance nearly ninety minutes into the one-act show, when attention spans have already been strained (not to mention eyes blinded by strobes). A special guest appearance from Irvine Welsh (the guest varies night by night), reading from recent prose work, didn’t help in terms of cohesion.
Whether one enjoys RIOT will likely depend on how easily one is overwhelmed, but for this critic’s taste there was alternately too too much, and not enough there there. Had creator/directors Jennifer Jennings and Phillip McMahon put more thought into the order of acts, and trimmed sections to highlight performers’ strengths without wearing out their welcome, the show could be a brisk, smart adult entertainment. Had the show’s creators wanted to create a bold political antidote to recent headlines, such a feat could have been accomplished using these performers. As it is, the show never quite congeals – a shame that the resonance of the piece as a whole can’t quite break away from feeling like the sum of so many disparate parts.