Taylor Mac's explosive, radical and wickedly funny family drama comes to Red Stitch
Revolutions are not swift, orderly or bloodless – they are chaotic and painful. Hir – the 2014 play by cult New York performance artist and playwright Taylor Mac – exists in this anarchic transitionary period between a doomed world and an as-yet unformed future. In this case, the revolution in question takes place in an ordinary suburban family home and involves an abusive patriarch knocked from his position of power, his wife assuming dominance over the family, and a sibling breaking from the binaries of gender. The result is a provocative, radical play that is as supercharged with fierce familial love as it is with dysfunction and tragedy.
We begin on ground zero: the kitchen and living room of a working-class American family, the Connors. Judy Garland’s ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ plays as a red curtain opens to reveal what once would have been a standard suburban “starter home”, but now looks like Mardi Gras parade has blown through the place, leaving a trail of glitter and kitsch in its wake. Isaac (Jordan Fraser-Trumble) is a US Marine who has just returned from war in disgrace, having been caught “blowing meth up his butt”. He’s traumatised from his role in “mortuary services” picking up blown-up bodies, and he’s yearning for an orderly home and a warm welcome. But there are no banners waiting for him. Instead, he finds his father, Arnold (Ben Grant) incapacitated on a recliner, virtually monosyllabic after suffering a major stroke. The once-dominant patriarch is now slathered in makeup, wearing a clown’s wig and nightie and dosed up on oestrogen-laced milkshakes that keep him docile. It’s the work of his mother Paige (Belinda McClory), who is almost giddy with her new-found power over the man who terrorised her and her children for decades. Isaac finds all of this overwhelming (by this time, he’s vomiting in the kitchen sink), but there’s still one revelation left: the transformation of his sibling Max. In the three years that Isaac has been away, Max (Harvey Zielinski) has come out as trans, buying testosterone online and adopting the pronouns hir/ze (as opposed to her/she).
These days, Paige refuses to perform any domestic chores, hence why the home is messy to an anxiety-inducing degree. It’s a testament to set designer Adrienne Chisholm that the space feels lived-in to the point that you can almost smell the unwashed clothes which the family must wade through to get around the house. Not that Paige minds one bit. McClory’s Paige moves with an electric energy as she describes the radical “paradigm shift” that she and her teenage child are manifesting. She teaches Isaac gleefully about the “alphabet of gender” which she scrawls with chalk on the wall next to hanging pictures positioned to cover the holes created by Arnold’s fists. Paige is entirely devoted to supporting Max, who she believes will steer her (and the entire world) into a post-gender utopia.
In the hands of another playwright, Hir could be a kitchen-sink tragicomedy entirely focused on gender and contemporary identity politics. But Mac’s vision is wider than this. “Just catch up. The world is going forward – there’s no time to be worried about gender,” says 17-year-old Max to hir mother and Isaac. “Gender isn’t radical. It’s not even progressive. It’s an everyday occurrence.” In reality, Hir is a subversion of the tight-handed realist American family drama (think Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, for example). It’s about late-capitalist America at breaking point (the family home is on top of a landfill, and its days are numbered). Focusing in tightly on the Connors means that Mac can investigate this within the microcosm of a family, asking what happens when existing oppressive structures begin to fall, and what will replace them.
It’s a genuinely radical and exciting question, and one that Mac does not attempt to answer.
Indeed, this is something that fans of Taylor Mac’s life-affirming and triumphant 24-Decade History of American Popular Music might find difficult to stomach in Hir. This work is at times unbearably bleak and depressing. Mac doesn’t shy away from the desperation that hangs over this family, and yet, infuses the script with camp humour, sarcastic asides and rapid-fire wit (the epitome of this uneasy marriage of tragedy and comedy is Paige’s therapeutic shadow puppet show). This makes directing Hir an incredibly difficult task – one that director Daniel Clarke is up to for a good portion of the play. Particularly in the first act, Clarke leans in to the comedy whenever is appropriate, but takes obvious care with the sensitivities of the subject matter. Each actor draws out the vulnerability of their characters valiantly. McClory shines as Paige – at times, she’s a force of positivity and love, but at others, she’s a traumatised woman who, in her desire for freedom, is unwittingly putting too much pressure on Max. Similarly, watching her humiliate Arnold oscillates between being satisfying and harrowing (how far does the revolution need to go in punishing those who were once in power?).
As Max, Zielinski is a joy to watch. The Melbourne actor, making his Red Stitch debut, plays hir as a relatable teenager; sassy, moody and overly confident yet naive. Max asserts that really, ze’s the one home-schooling hir mother and not the other way around – and yet, ze knows deep-down that ze’s not ready to live hir dream and live with radical queer anarchists on a commune. Fraser-Trumble’s Isaac radiates a white-hot anger, pain and love, with a rising dangerous desire to restore his father as the head of the family.
But with a script as dense and complex as this, nailing the nuances isn’t easy, and the show seems to run away with itself towards the end of the second half. When patriarchal power threatens to re-take hold (at one point, Arnold comes close to attacking Paige), a sense of real danger is missing. This means that as the play careens towards further tragedy, the shift to a darker tone and the sudden domino effect of events feels sudden and rushed.
Hir isn’t the uplifting experience that Taylor Mac devotees might expect; nor does it seek to portray an idyllic post-gender, post-capitalist world. But that’s the point. In throwing audiences into a maelstrom of blurred binaries and shifting battlelines, Hir is asking us to confront an America in transition, and to ask us who we want to become.