Sounds like a party, right? That’s probably the best way to describe Antonio!: a queer romp, following Antonio (played by co-creator William Duignan) who we discover feels pigeonholed and wronged by the Bard himself. He has left Antonio’s true love affairs closeted. It opens with Antonio and the ‘fools’ (Felix Crossley-Pritchard, Andy Manning, Evan Michael Smith, Ania Upstill) drinking and tuning their instruments, like they’re in a pirate-themed soundcheck. We quickly learn about Antonio’s ‘true story’ and his true feelings about being (mis)used by the Bard throughout his work, and like one of my favourite musical numbers suggest, he’s here to “fix the narrative” and set the record… not so straight.
Clever direction and crafting, courtesy of Upstill and Duignan, means the show has a meaningful structure and rules. Placards help guide the audience in the show’s more interactive segments. I didn’t ever think I needed to yell “fuck money” so gleefully at my screen until now. The structure itself means we take a twist through The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, and Much Ado About Nothing, tracking Antonio’s attempts at queer love only to be thwarted by our prolific Bard each and every time. Musical numbers are punctuated by clever narration, often signalling when one of the fools will transform into the different love interests: Bassaino, Don Pedro, and Sebastian. This helps the show become a mixture of camp and tenderness.
Within the songs, the narration, and the space in between, Antonio! thrives on quick wit and sharp one liners, my favourite being, “Shakespeare: good lover, fine playwright”. Each performer finds their own place on the stage (designed by Milo Robinson)—littered with chests, seats, amps—and has moments to support poor Antonio as well as moments to burst into the spotlight. The reliance on play means at first you mightn’t notice the wider themes at work here, but all of this humour and ridiculousness has some nuance: we’re reminded that queer stories are often hidden in plain sight, often queer-coded, often disregarded. So it’s encouraging to see that message delivered by a booty of queer pirates (at least I think that’s the collective noun for pirates), even if the message itself doesn’t feel fresh.
All that said, I didn’t fall in love with Antonio!, which is probably a bit surprising. I think that ultimately has more to do with the context in which I could view it. It’s closing night of Butch Mermaid Productions’ show in New York City, where it’s 9:30pm, and in the theatre, I’d probably be a few wines down singing alongside the performers and other patrons. I can hear the crowd in the theatre applauding and laughing throughout the roughly 50 minute run time. But watching through a screen—where the livestream is shaky and portions of the show go unheard because of unfortunately technical difficulties and sound quality issues—takes away a lot of the joy. I’m not quite part of this party. The sound issues, in particular, were a right shame: some key moments were lost, some melodic singing was broken into staticy pieces, and some comic one-liners were mouthed but sadly, unheard. Part of the theatre’s power comes from the immediacy. So while it feels fitting that a New Zealand audience is included in a production full of Aotearoa theatre talent, and fitting thematically that a broader spectrum of audiences are included, my virtual experience had less lustre and the magic of the stage felt less captivating.
Antonio! is queer joy come-to-life, as well as queer reclamation. The show’s extravaganza would feel very different—in the best possible way—being right in front of them instead of through a screen. But that isn’t to say I didn’t leave my screen with a smile on my face.
If you’d like to know more about the show, or about Butch Mermaid Productions, click here.