Taylor Mac’s Hir, may well be a milestone in American theater as well as a milestone in American comedy that ranks alongside The Skin of Our Teeth, Sweet Bird of Youth, and Torch Song Trilogy as one of the very greatest comedies ever written for the stage. Hir also merits a place in the pantheon of absurdist comedy as it is especially reminiscent of the wild iconic works of Eugene Ionesco, for example, Rhinoceros. Like these landmark plays, Hir demands the engagement of the audience and the audience in turn may well be upset and offended by it. If you look to public response to the older classics just listed, you will find they too were met with both derision and adoration. Hir most definitely exists in that space.
Now in a beguiling production at Mixed Blood Theatre directed by Niegel Smith, Hir is surely one of the angriest comedies you will ever see. It’s not just satirical, but it is transgressively harsh and caustic from start to very end. Typically, one would write off a play drenched in such qualities as being poorly written or polemic but playwright Taylor Mac seems to have method to his madness as he deliberately wields politically-correct dogma based in gender and sexuality identity politics like a verbal weapon of destruction for scorched earth purposes. It’s not like The Book of Mormon or the Trey Parker school of cheap shot snark or a sort of “drop the bomb and run”* mentality. It makes its cruel points but stands by them and leaves audience members to weigh over what each thinks.
What is genuinely and profoundly mysterious about this is that you are never quite sure if Mac is raging against America’s destructive right wing policies and customs or if he is warning that the left, especially that which is firmly based in feminism and GLBT and Q politics, is potentially totalitarian. One also wonders if Mac himself was clear on which side he is landing on. Or if he wants us to think about excesses of both sides when they’ve gone berserk. Or if he was even aware of just what a heretical play he was actually writing. But it doesn’t matter because Mac has ended up with not just the most outlandishly provocative play of our time, but the most seriously thought-provoking play of our time.
Hir’s primary demand is that you adapt to the play’s usage of the word “hir” in place of her or his; and “ze” instead of he or she.
The setting is a working class house built on a landfill where wife and mother, Paige (a relentlessly dynamic Sally Wingert) has burst into middle-aged consciousness with the awareness that she has been dominated by her husband and a misogynist society. She’s the type who probably, if not obviously, sat through the entire Reagan and Bush One era without it ever dawning on her there was something wrong with that picture. Many who are now middle-aged and would be around the age of the Paige character but were actually acutely aware of just how off-kilter that Reagan-Bush era picture was, will likely think of her as a Janet-come-lately who wasn’t around when those trying to make a difference really could have used her help. At any rate, perhaps better late than never, her lately sprung liberalism is the play’s energizing force. One senses that she and Arnold both, have lived in a willfully naïve, apathetic way of life when it comes to politics.
Paige has declared war on her past housewife identity. She not only refuses to clean the house but she is adamant that no one else in the house cleans it. Joseph Stanley’s set is strewn with clothing and knick knacks in a combination kitchen, dining, and living room. The house was meant to be a starter house which Paige and hubby, Arnold (an artfully raw John Paul Gamoke), would only temporarily occupy. But that was decades ago and Arnold never bought them a new house. She is oblivious to the fact that one of the reasons she loathes him is because he didn’t live up to the traditional male role model ideal that says a man must provide well for and prosper his family, or else he is less than a man. Apparently, Arnold was also abusive toward her. And to be sure, forgiveness is not a concept in Paige’s chaotic universe.
Paige’s dump of a house, which she refuses to de-clutter or have de-cluttered, is perhaps a mirror image of her confused psyche. One wonders if Mac is giving credence to lesbian cultural critic Camille Paglia’s controversial comment “if civilization were left in female hands, we’d still be living in grass huts.”
To retaliate for all perceived egregious wrongs done by her husband, her womb, and by patriarchy, Paige borrows a chapter from the Abu Ghraib handbook and sees to it that Arnold is drugged, stripped, dressed in a diaper, and a short dainty housedress.
Paige’s liberation has been catalyzed by her daughter, Max (a vibrant Jay Eisenberg), who is transitioning from being a biological or what’s termed “cisgender” female to a transgender male. Taylor isn’t the least bit restrained from references to how hormones and testosterone affecting Max’s disputatious behavior. In society at large, not in the play, the hormone issue is something that is often off limits when discussing trans issues. Or what you are permitted to say about it in some circles is sharply circumscribed. Mac has opened the door for all of us to question transgender advocates and medical experts on questions about the effects of hormones -long term and short- as well as expenses involved, that have been off limits. And not to be embarrassed about it. This is among the play’s many virtues.
Paige and Arnold’s son, Isaac (Dustin Bronson), comes home after being dishonorably discharged from the Marines for illegal drug use in Iraq. No family member bothered to meet him when he arrived in town and when he comes home he can’t get inside because the door is jammed with junk. Isaac actually had the audacity to think that his family would greet him when he arrived home! When he wonders why he wasn’t informed about his sister’s gender re-assignment (once called a sex change) he is derided as an example of chauvinistic male privilege. Of course, that’s not the reason: it’s perfectly natural for someone needing to process things when someone close to them is going through or has been through gender re-assignment. And it is made clear this is actually what’s going through Isaac’s head. It’s not bigotry.
Paige and Max also make hatefully scatological comments about Isaac’s drug abuse that are reminiscent of bullies who go after kids who don’t fit into traditional gender norms. Again, Mac is turning identity politics rhetoric back on itself. Unlike mature lefties who sympathize with soldiers but boldly speak truth to power by placing complaint on the higher brass, Paige and Max make it clear that in their eyes his military service in general is nothing to be proud of and that he can go onto the street with the rest of the homeless veterans.
This cleverly exemplifies Mac’s shrewd style: right wingers and liberal patriotic types will surely be offended by the disregard, if not disrespect for soldiers, yet how do right wingers and liberal patriotic types square how poorly the government treats these soldiers who have come back to zero opportunity? Maybe they too are more similar to Paige than they’d care to admit.
As for the comments about Isaac’s drug abuse, most hard lefties who I’ve known are all compassion about drug addicts being understood and rehabilitated rather than being jailed. I see this as Mac pointing out gaps in Paige and Max’s understanding of just what it is and what it means to be a progressive. Remember, Paige is a Janet-come-lately to progressivism.
That said, Paige has the gall to chime in with an enabling Max with many of those politically-correct terms, concepts, and turns of phrase that certain progressives (and I hasten to add, not all progressives) use to shut off conversation. Paige and Max gush euphorically about celebrating themselves and their identities. They have been somehow indoctrinated to the categorical thinking that many on the Left are congealed in. We hear about the evils of “binary” thinking, pompous attitudes about cultural offerings, power, the evils of male power without any distinction of race, class, or income, or age and of course, yes, you guessed it – appropriation. It’s as if Mac is really letting off steam for the way identity politics zealots love to have those who don’t think as categorically as they do walk on eggshells. With Hir we see that that impulse may well be a sign of not only totalitarianism or identity politics turned into a dehumanizing religion, but mental illness. Paige and Max have not grasped what Jean Luc-Godard once stated: “language itself cannot accurately define the image.”
Moreover, what’s conspicuously absent from Paige and Max’s brainwashing is their utter unconsciousness of economics, foreign policy, and ecology from the perspective of the Left, that being the Left which they owe their very social acceptance to. It’s like now that we’ve got what we wanted from the Left, we’re just gonna go do our thing and express ourselves. We haven’t shown an interest in anything but the issues we can play “gotcha” with, so we’re just gonna let it all hang out man.
It’s what’s not ever said about the banks, Wall Street, the Pentagon, the War on Drugs, the NSA, or even the most consequential transgender person of our time, Chelsea Manning, that is very revealing. They expect perfection from all on their terms only and what they themselves are ignorant of doesn’t bear thinking about. And they are simply uninterested when it’s not their own personal identity issue.
Bronson’s splendid turn as Isaac becomes a very touching performance. He is the very picture of Apollonian young male virility. It’s perfectly natural and masculine to put on the plastic gloves and start cleaning house and helping his dad dress like his old self again. He is at once the provider-warrior and the nurturer. He is a masculine male version of Thornton Wilder’s Mrs. Antrobus in the iconic The Skin of Our Teeth. Despite wars, depressions, and Ice Ages, she carries on and keeps the home fire burning. Isaac understands also has a similar inner core.
Some younger audience members may have the mistaken impression that men as domestic helpers did not begin with the Mr. Mom era. Many of us who are older remember masculine heterosexual dads, uncles, granddads, and even great-granddads who helped with lots of things around the house. They could be great cooks and neat freaks and efficient tyrants of domesticity. There have been great prolific heterosexual male dads in households for eons.
As Isaac is revealed as the only family member who has come anywhere near balancing his yin and yang, one wonders if he isn’t the true transgender person. No hormone injection needed. Ironically, young Max is oblivious to the reality that living on no income and having no parents to provide income, will put him severely at risk for any hormone or medical/pharmaceutical treatment as someone making the transition. And living post-transition.
Rather than Paige being concerned over Max’s future, she is disgusted by Isaac’s focus. She can’t abide that cleaning is just not an issue to him. Moreover, his drug issues notwithstanding, the kid has lived and worked in a war zone. His first hand look at death and destruction could naturally inspire in him a sense, a drive to rebuild. Much like Mrs. Antrobus.
Paige, a Dionysian Nero in contemporary female form fiddles while her domestic Rome burns, metaphorically speaking, Isaac is again, the Apollonian bringer light. Oddly enough, it is the young man who has any chance of all of restoring the world to harmony. And as we see as the play draws to an end, And Paige can’t have that! When she is slapped it compares to the film, The Verdict, in which Charlotte Rampling is slapped by Paul Newman. There were Hollywood executive types who worried that would damage the film’s reputation and bring out women en masse to protest. Quite the opposite. Women didn’t sympathize with Rampling’s character, though as with Wingert, they rightly thought it was a great performance.
Through Mar. 22
Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 E. 4th St., Mpls.