In Simpatico’s Hir, the Triumph of Chaos
BY DAVID FOX | JUNE 9, 2017 AT 9:35 AM
“We’ve given up on order,” says Paige with a triumphant smile to her son, Isaac, as together they survey the chaotic mess of their living room. If we take this as a winking summary also of Taylor Mac’s spectacular, genre-busting play, Hir—well, I’d say it’s the understatement of the year.
You see, Isaac has just returned from fighting in Afghanistan—and finds he’s traded one war for another. Back at home, he discovers that his father, Arnold (actor John Morrison gives a funny and heartbreaking performance) has had a stroke, and is now infantilized and abused by Paige, who has taken his failing health as an opportunity to grab the reins. (Paige is quite a piece of work: imagine a cross between Paula Deen and Kim Jong-il, and you’ll be close.) From the look of things, house cleaning is the first thing she gave up, in what is now her on-going quest for self-realization.
This is all pretty overwhelming to Isaac, who is also grappling with his own drug addiction. But wait—there’s more! He soon learns that his sister He soon learns that his sister has been transitioning and is now called Max (played with spellbinding, puckish charm by Eppchez!, an ungender mixed-media artist). Max’s gender-fluid identity is yet another of Paige’s new causes. (By the way, “hir” is a gender-neutral pronoun.)
If I were teaching Hir to a college theater class, I might start by asking them to imagine the prehistory of the family. I think we might get would be something similar to Long Day’s Journey into Night—a family in the shadow of a narcissistic, miserly patriarch, whose dominating presence robs the rest of them of a life. In this light, Paige’s emasculating treatment of Arnold takes on an almost epochal resonance—an upending of patriarchal privilege.
So, while it would be easy (also accurate) to describe Hir as a transgender play, it’s so much more than that—it’s about war, family, waste, imprisonment, and escape. Surely, by now you’re also wondering if Hir is a comedy or a tragedy—the answer is yes, on both counts.
In fact, the twists-and-turns of Mac’s script are perhaps its most startling quality (and that’s saying something!). Nothing is sacred here—war, the military machine, drug addiction, safe spaces, and even gender politics are skewered with equal savagery. It’s also often laugh-out-loud funny.
All of this makes Hir quite a challenge to perform—here director Jarrod Markman negotiates it with assurance and high-style. As Paige, the great Marcia Saunders is beyond praise. It’s an acting class simply to watch her navigate the shifts in tone with a surgeon’s precision. She can start a line with the sunny boisterousness of a morning show co-host—and, by the end of it, turned chillingly authoritarian. Simply amazing. Kevin Meehan (Isaac) is very touching in his quieter moments, but I wish he’d tone down some of his smirky comic delivery.
To say that Hir isn’t for everyone would be another understatement—but I urge all who are open to new experiences to check out for themselves the exceptional work that Simpatico is doing. O brave new world, that has such people in it! If Hir is the future of American theater, count me in.
He, she and 'Hir'
JUNE 12, 2017 SHAPIRO ON THEATER
Caustic and funny in equal parts, Taylor Mac's "Hir" doesn't bend gender as much as stab it to death with blunt barbs. In a Simpatico Theatre production that opened over the weekend, "Hir" is also forceful, with a four-person cast that shines amid the characters' absurdities.
You don't have to go too far into "Hir" to discover its weird sensibility: The first minute of the show will do, when the lights come up on Christopher Haig's set with clothes strewn all over the place and furniture that appears to come from a third-generation yard sale. In this junky house – we see the living room and the kitchen -- there's so much piled against the inside of the front door that Isaac (Kevin Meehan, in a standout display of bewilderment) can't get in. He has to enter through the back door in order to make his first appearance home after three years of picking up body parts in his wartime job in the Mideast.
Here's what he sees: A mother (the fabulous Marcia Saunders) who declares "We don't do order!" and crushes a slurry of pills and estrogen in a blender for her stroke-addled husband (John Morrison, fully into the part), whom she despises for his formerly uber-male characteristics. Isaac can't believe what she's done to his dad. The man sits in a drooling position at a cardboard box, is dressed in a women's nightie and wears a clown wig and overdone rouge (Levonne Lindsay's costumes).
But this homecoming's not yet complete. Where is Isaac's sister? "Max!" his mother hollers, "come in here and explain your ambiguity to your bother!" Eventually Max does. She is now a trans-gender he, on heavy doses of testosterone and insisting on the linguistic trappings of gender neutrality. In this household, he and she will now be ze. And him and her will be hir.
Max is played by Eppchez!, the exclamation point being part of the name. The actor is self-described on the Web as a "Quaker, ungender, Latinex artist and activist." Eppchez! had me glued to every eye-roll and move, first for the gender switch the performance perfectly exploits in the service of "Hir," but then for the way it captures the rich contradictions of a teenager who's always trying on new ideas.
"Hir" is directed by Jarrod Markman, who clearly had choices; you could read the script in different ways, each eliciting distinct reactions. Markman chooses a storytelling that makes the play funny, sad and angry all at once – you may be laughing one moment, then zapped by some strange avowal the next. However you react, you can't help but wonder what will happen next.
The storyline has a traditional arc that carries it swiftly through what seem like bizarre notions at first but, remarkably, become more understandable as "Hir" unfolds. Poor Isaac, for his part, can't buy into it – he wants everything back to the way it was when he left home to join the military. But the choices he made overseas changed his life, too, and he can't rewind the clock for himself. Everyone here is caught up in sweeping, unpredictable change. The eccentric quality of "Hir" makes it unusual but its passion for ideas keeps it grounded. It's a refreshing piece of theater and at Simpatico, a rousing production
from Broad Street Reveiw
Breaking the Binary
Wendy Rosenfield | June 09, 2017
Leave it to Taylor Mac, the genderqueer phenomenon who created one of the most ambitious works performance art has ever produced — the 24-hour-long A 24-Decade History of Popular Music — to look back at the kitchen-sink drama via judy's 2014 play Hir, with a similar mix of disdain, hope, pity, horror, and humor. With just two plays this season, the other being Martyna Majok's bleak yet humorous immigrant drama Ironbound, Simpatico Theatre Company hit the topical jackpot.
All in the family
Turning judy’s incisive eye toward the 21st-century nuclear family, Mac takes a pinch each of O’Neill, Albee, and Shepard — and never, ever softens for the sake of nostalgia. Judy certainly believes in the tenet that you can’t ever go home again, as Kevin Meehan’s Isaac — a dishonorably discharged young Marine returning from a three-year stint picking up body parts in Afghanistan for the military’s Mortuary Affairs unit — quickly discovers.
As it happens, that home is so strewn with dirty laundry and dishes that Isaac must enter through a rear patio door (set design by Christopher Haig). In his absence, his father Arnold (John Morrison), a tyrannical, abusive former plumber, suffered a stroke and now stumbles around the living room drooling in a pink dress, blonde wig, and garish makeup applied by Isaac’s mother, Paige (Marcia Saunders). Paige, now free of her husband’s oppression, has staged her own feminist revolution by refusing to clean, drugging Arnold daily with estrogen, working at an environmental nonprofit, and homeschooling her younger child, teenage Max (Eppchez!). Little sister Max is now Isaac’s brother, identifying as transmasculine and using hir pronouns. Some homecoming.
If that were it, if this were just a quirky family navigating a new dynamic, it would still be an interesting and funny twist on a timeworn genre. But that’s not it. Oddly, this play perhaps best represents the fears of both the white, working-class Trump voter and the vanishing middle-class liberal. What happens when the kind of man who learned a trade, got a job, and ruled his roost with an iron fist no longer finds a place in the world? What happens to feminists in a gender-free future? Is freedom even possible for someone like Max, whose own history contains so many confusing and painful messages?
Fierce and funny
Director Jarrod Markman plays act one for laughs, setting us up for the damage to come. And come it does — does it ever — but not in a Shakespearean bodies-littering-the-stage fashion. This damage goes deep and stays there. There’s much discussion of parts: those collected by Isaac after battle; a museum exhibition featuring Saint Theresa (but since parts of her were stolen, Paige explains, “they only show the tidbits”); and the pieces Max wants to restore, ignored or overlooked “hirstory,” such as the conjecture that the Mona Lisa might really depict Da Vinci dressed as a woman, a dangerously transgressive act.
What powers it all is the strength of this quartet of actors. Saunders whiplashes Paige from whimsy to ferocity, one moment gleefully explaining the new generation of pronouns, the next reducing her husband to whimpers with a look. Morrison gives a shockingly brave performance, humorous and horrible. Though Paige tells Isaac, “Don’t pity him, those that knew him know of his cruelty,” he’s so pathetic it’s inhuman not to. Meehan, who, perhaps not coincidentally, also appeared in InterAct’s production of Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men, brings a determined force to Isaac, appointing himself man of the house where nobody asked for one.
Most playwrights whose work features a transgender character would make that person the fulcrum of the plot, but not Mac. Here, Max is just a confused kid looking for guidance among the wreckage. Eppchez!, with patchy peach fuzz on hir face, an ambiguously gendered physique, and gender-neutral clothing, gets enthusiastic but always holds an air of the slightly lost and frightened, like a puppy hoping to follow the right person home.
Isaac’s not that person. He made the mistake of going home again, a man in a place that needs no men. When his mother tells him, “It’s why we sent you, all the boys, to the wars to begin with,” you can’t help but see the factory-line assemblers, coal miners, steelworkers, all those who used to work with their hands and now hang out unemployed and aimless in neighborhoods like these, inside their parents’ houses. But coal’s not coming back, and people in this brave new world continue to follow a dying paradigm. Taylor Mac, it seems, believes the gender binary just might be to blame for at least part of the decline of the American dream; I think judy makes a pretty good case.