Hir: Theater review by Adam Feldman
Paige (Kristine Nielsen) and her youngest child, Max (Tom Phelan), have made a deliberate mess of their home. The cupboards are bare, the dishes unwashed; clothes are scattered unfolded on the floor, and the walls are crowded with sparkly crafts. Husband and father Arnold (Daniel Oreskes) putters feebly in the corner, a stroke victim costumed in a purple housecoat, garish makeup and a clown’s rainbow wig. Freed from his abuse and dominance, Paige and Max are diving into a new world disorder: postpatriarchal, postgender and postconsumerist, posthaste. Out of the chaos, they are convinced, a better way of living can evolve.
This exuberant radicalism may not come as a complete surprise to fans of Taylor Mac’s previous work, such as the sprawling, spangled allegorical epic The Lily’s Revenge
. But in Hir
, the boundary-violating genderqueer playwright—who prefers to go by the whimsical pronoun judy—sets it within the relatively traditional form of a four-character, single-set domestic drama. The result is a dizzying theatrical Tilt-a-Whirl, in which sections of the play spin wildly on a steadily revolving base. No wonder Isaac (Cameron Scoggins)—Paige’s older son, returning after a three-year stint with the Marines—can’t stop throwing up into the sink.
Isaac, pointedly nicknamed I, barely recognizes the home he assumed would be waiting for him. Once his tomboy sister, Max is now a masculine-presenting teen with a scruffy chin and a wife-beater who uses the pronouns ze and hir (pronounced here). The formerly imposing Arnold is marginal and powerless, and Paige takes pleasure in humiliating him. “Those who knew him know of his cruelty,” she says, snapping from manic cheer—Nielsen’s great stock in trade—into steel. “We will not rewrite his history with pity.” Her rigid discourse of liberation can sometimes sound like a new kind of oppression. But if Paige’s house is broken now, it was also broken before—and Isaac is too damaged himself to fix it.
Patently metaphorical and threaded with nervy satire, Hir
at times suggests a modern inversion of David Rabe’s 1971 Sticks and Bones
, in which a changed soldier returns to a family determined to keep up old appearances. It has a ringing voice all its own, however, and formidable broad-mindedness in its sympathies (and its jabs). The upstairs theater at Playwrights Horizons may be too small for the aesthetic of Niegel Smith’s production; David Zinn’s set is ideal, but some of the acting can seem overscaled. (Imperfection and excess, in fairness, are part of Mac’s artistic creed.) Phelan, a young trans actor, gives the most natural performance onstage, and that seems right. Max is self- and sex-obsessed in the usual teenage way, but ze also seems the least fazed by change. When the teetering family home collapses, as it surely will, ze might just be unformed enough to adapt.—Adam Feldman
Playwrights Horizons (Off Broadway). By Taylor Mac. Directed by Niegel Smith. With Kristine Nielsen, Cameron Scoggins, Tom Phelan, Daniel Oreskes. Running time: 1hr 50mins. One intermission.