Tuesday, February 25, 2014

"Hir" at the Magic Theatre: Neither here nor there

The Lily's Revenge, Taylor Mac's 4.5-hour carnivalesque fantasia that the Magic Theatre produced in 2011, is still one of my favorite theatergoing experiences in San Francisco. It turned me into a raving Taylor Mac fangirl and filled me with anticipation for his new play at the magic, Hir. I knew that this would be a very different piece from Lily's; Mac isn't starring in it, and it's a two-hour dysfunctional-family drama with a streak of dark comedy. Still, what I loved most about The Lily's Revenge was how smart and well-constructed the script was – it had great bones, underneath all the sequins and makeup. I looked forward to seeing what Mac would do when working in a more realistic mode. I hoped that Hir would be intelligent and insightful and, in its own way, as revolutionary as The Lily's Revenge.

Jax Jackson as Max. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.
Hir tells the story of Isaac, a soldier who returns from a 3-year tour of duty to find his home in disarray. His father, Arnie, has suffered a debilitating stroke. His mother, Paige, is refusing to clean the house, running the air conditioner full blast, and abusing and neglecting her invalid husband, all as revenge for the years of domestic abuse he inflicted on her. And his teenage sister is now his teenage brother, Max, a "transmasculine fag" who insists on the pronouns "ze" and "hir."

In its title and its marketing, Hir purports to focus on gender-identity issues. But Max isn't the protagonist; ze's the last character to enter, and at times, hir story feels like an afterthought. Paige's ego and personality dominate the play, and she seems to do most of the talking in Act I. Meanwhile, the character it's easiest to identify with is Isaac – he's shocked to discover how crazy and dysfunctional his family has become, and we're right there making those discoveries alongside him. What this means, though, is that the character we identify with is the only person onstage who's a young, able-bodied, heterosexual, white, cisgender male. I have to believe that Taylor Mac is too smart not to have done this on purpose – but I can't figure out why, after making his name writing plays that speak from the perspective of "drag queens, freaks, queers, mermaids, shamans," he is now asking us to identify with a straight white dude.

Ben Euphrat as Isaac, Nancy Opel as Paige. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.
And, in the end, there were a lot of things about Hir that I just couldn't figure out. It's a perplexing, unsettling play – in the sense that I never understood why the story was being told or what it aimed to accomplish. (The rest of the audience seemed to feel the same way; the applause was the most half-hearted, "WTF was that?" applause I've ever heard.) The Lily's Revenge felt revolutionary both in terms of its form and its content: revolutionary in its empathy, its inclusiveness, its sense of community. Hir feels like a throwback, despite the references to 21st-century issues like the Iraq war, crystal meth, and transgender teens. To a large extent, it's a "they fuck you up, your mom and dad" play – and we've all seen plays like that before.

I suppose it's refreshing to see a play in which a soldier has been made more empathic, rather than more brutal, by the experience of war; and in which a suburban mom embraces her child's gender transition rather than being freaked out by it. But that isn't enough to make Hir a compelling evening of theater. Moreover, Paige's commitment to Max's gender identity may defy stereotype, but in many other respects, she's the biggest cliche of all: the smothering, self-absorbed, monstrous mother, Mama Rose on steroids. Paige is depicted as someone who's read a lot of feminist and postmodernist theory and then completely misinterpreted it, e.g. she thinks that because her husband beat her, it gives her the right to make his life miserable after he has his stroke. You can imagine a conservative pundit watching Hir and then saying "see, feminism turns women into man-hating monsters!" I'm sure that this can't be Taylor Mac's intent… but then, I'm not sure what his intent is. Is Hir supposed to depict the here-and-now? Because it really felt neither here nor there.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

John Hodgman on Only Children

I am an only child. And when you are an only child you have an unusual relationship with your parents. There are only the three of you, and you come to rely on one another for company as much as for anything else. You spend a lot of time traveling together, going to movies together, and watching public television together, with your dinner in your lap. Your mother and father are not so much your parents as they are your weird, older roommates. Or better, a pair of older cats who wander in and out of the rooms of your house. They silently judge you, but they can't stop you from whatever it is you're going to do.
—John Hodgman, from "Downton Abbey with Cats," The New Yorker, 1/13/14

 The New Yorker characterized this as a "Shouts and Murmurs" humor piece, but it was far wiser and deeper than those pieces tend to be. (It begins, "Look, I never want to tell stories about my children, because it always seems a little lazy. Children tend to be sort of dumb, and, in the end, the stories are always the same: children say hilarious things, and I am old and dying." That's funny, sure, but it also cuts close to the bone.)

And the paragraph I've quoted above made me realize how little writing I've read about the experience of being an only child -- despite the Internet-enabled proliferation of first-person essays about coming-of-age and parenting and all that stuff. And, even though only children make up an increasing share of the population (about 20% of American kids these days will be only children) there still seems to be a sense that it's "better" for children to have siblings, or that being an only child is not "ideal." Think of how newlywed couples get asked "Are you planning to have kids?" not "Are you planning to have a kid?" (Which is pretty presumptuous on the part of the asker – there's no guarantee that any couple will be able to have one healthy child, much less multiple children.) I'm trying to think of ways I can personally help dismantle the stigma around having only one child, without coming across as an agenda-driven douchebag.

But I know I am agenda-driven, because I'm an only child who never wished for siblings, and I feel like many of my better qualities (my creativity and ability to spend time by myself) are attributable to my being an only child. Some people may read the Hodgman quote above and discount it because it's part of a "humor" piece; others may read it and say "Look, it says that only children have an 'unusual' relationship with their parents; I don't want that for my child." But I feel that my life was enriched by being around adults so much at a young age, and if my parents were "a pair of older cats" -- well, I've always been a cat person.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Revisiting Christopher Durang

Anyone else do the thing where you buy someone a book for their birthday or Christmas, and then the book you choose looks so interesting that you end up reading it yourself before giving it to them? My youngest cousin turned 15 this month, and he's a theater kid, so I decided I ought to give him some Christopher Durang. (I absolutely love having a teenage theater fan in the family and I am relishing my self-appointed role as "cool twenty-something cousin.") But then I couldn't resist reading the book myself before I sent it off to my cousin -- being careful not to get it dirty or break the spine, of course.

Laughing Wild and Baby with the Bathwater: Two PlaysLaughing Wild and Baby with the Bathwater: Two Plays by Christopher Durang
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I first encountered these plays when I was in high school and Christopher Durang was a favorite among the theater kids. I laughed at the irreverent, naughty absurdities of "Baby with the Bathwater," and a friend of mine did the "Laughing Wild" tuna fish monologue in acting class. Returning to these plays ten years later, I am no longer so enchanted by their kooky irrationality, but I am more attuned to their undercurrents of sorrow and outrage. I can also see their flaws a little more clearly: as Durang notes in his afterword, both of these plays were originally written as one-acts and then expanded into full-lengths, and especially in the case of "Baby with the Bathwater," the seams show.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Pop-Culture Obsessions, February 2014

 When I was a teenager, I hated bluegrass music and I hated Nirvana. But for some reason, I'm absolutely obsessed with Patti Smith's apocalyptic-bluegrass cover version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Well, I love a good upright bass, and the Americana arrangement makes it clearer than ever that this is a timeless youth anthem. I saw Patti Smith perform live at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in 2012 (though I don't remember her singing this song, appropriate though it would have been). I want to be her when I grow up.

Watching the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, I fell in love with ice dancing, and particularly with the gold-medal winners, the Canadian team of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. So I was VERY excited for their epic re-match this week with Meryl Davis and Charlie White, their American rivals who train under the same coach.

I do like the Americans, who won the competition this time. The final sequence of their long program was super impressive: they skated full-tilt and did one cool trick after another. But ultimately, my loyalty still lies with the Canadian pair. The Americans are hard-driving; the Canadians make it look effortless. They have sprezzatura. Tessa Virtue's smiling face seems to say "I can imagine no experience more blissful than being flung around an ice rink in the arms of Scott Moir." I know that the Olympics are an athletic competition, but unfortunately, I've always been more interested in aesthetics than athletics. Is it unfair to judge athletes on the basis of grace, beauty, elegance, and how much I want them to just kiss one another already? Probably. Do I do it anyway? Yes.

Ice dancing is ridiculously heteronormative and sentimental, yet I love it to bits. There's drama in the choreography, drama in the question of "are they in love or just extraordinarily talented actors?", drama in the judging. The routines must include a lot of specific technical elements, yet art still manages to emerge from within the constraints. If only I could figure out a not-ludicrous way to depict ice dance on stage, I'd make it the subject of my next play.

Photo of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir's free dance by Richard Lautens of the Toronto Star. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

In Praise of Harmony @ SF Theater Pub Blog

I know, it got a little quiet around my blog this past week, but that's because I was on a business trip to Dallas. Our Lone Star State colleagues showed us true Southern hospitality and lavished us with Texas-sized amounts of food; so, while I didn't have a lot of free time or opportunities to see tourist sites in Dallas, I had an excellent trip overall.

I did manage to write a brief piece for the Theater Pub blog, inspired by what I was doing in Texas ("harmonizing" business operations between my office and the Dallas one), and some recent thoughts I've been having about how to navigate a playwriting career with calm and confidence, rather than fear and anxiety.

In my piece, I wrote, "If the odds are so bad, if it’s difficult to achieve either fiscal or artistic success as a playwright, the only thing that we can do is treat ourselves with care, and try our best to enjoy our lives in the theater." I started having thoughts like this after I read Outrageous Fortune four years ago (it's actually four years to the day since I attended the Outrageous Fortune community discussion hosted by Theater Bay Area) and they've only intensified since then. That shouldn't be seen as justification for slacking off or throwing up your hands in defeat; but it should be a reason to build a career on your own terms.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Slavic Love at the Opening Ceremonies

I adore the Parade of Nations in the Olympics opening ceremony because it allows me to geek out about two of my favorite things: geopolitics and fashion.

For instance, I'm still wondering if it was intentional, or just a happy accident, that the Czech and Slovak teams both had heart motifs on their opening ceremony uniforms:

 The Czechs

The Slovaks

The sentimentalist in me likes to think that the similarity was intentional, and the heart motifs are a message to the world that, even though Czechoslovakia split over 20 years ago, their two countries are still united in love! Aww. Or perhaps a more likely explanation is that the hearts are a subtle form of protest against Russia's brutal anti-gay laws (though interestingly enough, Wikipedia tells me that the Czech Republic is much more liberal on LGBT issues than Slovakia is). At any rate, these uniforms are too adorable, and my own Czech heart is touched.

But I think my favorite uniforms among the Slavic countries might be Poland, combining a chic snowflake motif with the colors of the Polish flag and gray, my favorite neutral.

Speaking of gray... France, you know I love you, and those jackets with the nipped-in waist and the big Lacoste tricouleur crocodile are pretty fantastic, but I just CAN'T with the khakis. Put these athletes in navy blue pants, though, and it'd be a win.

Photos of the Czech, Slovak, and Polish teams by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images. Photo of the French team by Mark Humphrey/The Associated Press.