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.


Daniel Efosa Uyi said...
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Kristine said...

I think the idea of naming the play "Hir" is that our altering views over identity, gender roles, and ways of life affects everyone. It affects everyone on stage: Isaac, Paige, Arnold, and Max. Paige is especially affected by the notion. Max calls her a cliche, but I believe she is far from it. She is a representation of how we yearn for something better in the ugly aftermaths of society.

I'm biased because I'm an intern at Magic and read the play from its beginning stages. Let me inform you that Taylor barely had Max in the script. Throughout rehearsals, and even up till opening, Taylor has been developing Max's and Isaac's relationship. And so, naming it "Hir" definitely had a different implication than making it a play entirely about Max and gender identity. There seems to be a greater picture to paint under the umbrella of "Hir."

Taylor wrote a play about people in the context of "Hir." It makes the audience consider their context and views over the subject as well.

You can disagree as to whether you see Paige as feminist or not. In my opinion, seeking equality, even through revenge, is enough to represent feminism. Paige is not the ideal mascot we feminists look up to, but she is definitely the reflection of feminism getting twisted inside of us.

Marissa Skudlarek said...

Hi Kristine, thanks so much for commenting. Very interesting to learn that Max's role expanded during the rehearsal period. I did think that the relationship between Max and Isaac was one of the more interesting threads in Act II (though it made me wonder what their relationship was like back in the day, before Isaac went off to war and before Max gender-transitioned). Yes, the play clearly has a lot more on its mind than gender identity, even if the title/poster/reviews suggest that that is the main theme.