Hir: rhymes with “here”, as in “here and now”

Pi Theatre is producing Taylor Mac's Hir at The Annex.

And you thought your family was dysfunctional. (Deb Williams, Victor Dolhai, and Andrew Wheeler in Hir. Photo by Tim Matheson)

Taylor Mac’s Hir celebrates diversity while simultaneously exposing the underside of identity politics.

And it’s a comedy, although its humour is dark—like blood-encrusted dark.

A US Marine named Isaac comes home after three years of overseas duty. He’s been working in mortuary services, picking up the body parts of personnel who have been blown to bits. And he returns to a family that’s been blown apart by the gender wars, or, as many would phrase it—as I would phrase it—the struggle for gender liberation.

Isaac’s father Arnold has suffered a major stroke. Arnold was a racist, sexist asshole, the domestic embodiment of the evils of the patriarchy. But his stroke has erased his power and Isaac’s mom Paige has taken over. Paige clothes Arnold in a woman’s nightgown and slathers his face in make-up, making him look like a literal clown. Paige also feeds Arnold hormone-laced smoothies, explaining that “The estrogen keeps him docile.” Isaac is so stunned by his dad’s transformation that it triggers his PTSD and he pukes in the sink.

He also pukes in the sink when he finds out that his little sister is now his trans little brother, Max.

Playwright Mac, who is a drag queen and performance artist with a major rep, is even-handed in his treatment of the family members. Mac is clearly sympathetic to Max’s right to self-definition, for instance, but even Paige, who is Max’s biggest fan, complains about how pushy her son is about his new pronouns: “Ze wants you to use ‘ze’ and ‘hir’ as if they’ve been part of your vocabulary your entire life.”

With this set-up, Act 1 should be compelling, but it’s not. To me at least, the first act of Hir feels disappointingly helter-skelter and abstract. It’s as if the playwright is so bursting with ideas about identity and gender-related issues that he’s spitting them all out at once. He lets Paige goes off on tangents for instance about how, evolutionarily speaking, we’re all fish—and all a little bit black and a little bit gay. There’s a long riff about the futility of housekeeping. And things get pretty heady. Sample dialogue from Act 1: “We’re all proof and conjecture.”

Then there’s a big—BIG—turnaround in Act 2, which is all about how the family is going to deal with Arnold. With this strong relationship-based focus, the play’s impact increases exponentially.

Mac ups the stakes as the depth of Arnold’s cruelty is revealed and Paige’s reactivity becomes more pronounced. And we start to understand the fallout for the kids.

I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that, for me, Hir is ultimately about the dark side of identity politics, the tactically necessary but perilous selfishness: the cruelty of Paige’s revenge in other words. It’s about how we dehumanize our enemies as we define ourselves in opposition to them and lose important allies in the process. It’s about sacrificing our compassion on the pyre of rage. In one of the most complicated lines in the play, Paige says of Arnold, “Those who knew him knew of his cruelty. We will not rewrite his history with pity.” I think we all know where Paige is coming from. But I hope we also realize that Paige’s attachment to rage locks her in a purgatory of reactivity. (If you’re not clear what I mean, perhaps you’d like to read my Facebook feed.)

I want you to discover the riches of Hir for yourself, so I’m speaking in general terms, but let me remind you that, besides delivering the thematic goods in Act 2, the play is often very funny. My favourite line belongs to Paige: “I can’t breathe with that normative table in here!”

Besides, director Richard Wolfe helms a clear-eyed production and Deb Williams, who plays Paige, delivers one of the performances of the season. Paige’s fury is palpable and her wit ever-present.

Victor Dolhai is seamlessly responsive as Isaac. With almost no lines, Andrew Wheeler says a whole lot as the über-Daddy. And, like the other actors in their roles, Jordan Fowlie is rewardingly nuanced as Max, although I would have appreciated more volume in Act 1.

Mishelle Cutler’s sound design, in which the air conditioning becomes a major player—is as subtle as breath.

Watching Act 1 of Hir, I was in my head. In Act 2, I was living it. I encourage you to live it too.

 

HIR By Taylor Mac. Directed by Richard Wolfe. A Pi Theatre production at The Annex on Saturday, November 24.  Continues until December 8.Tickets.

 

NEVER MISS A REVIEW: To get links to my reviews plus the best of international theatre coverage, sign upfor FRESH SHEET, my free weekly e-newsletter.

And, if you want to keep independent criticism alive in Vancouver, check out my Patreon page. Newspapers are dying and arts journalism is often the first thing they cut. Fight back!

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

Leave a Reply

Sign up—free!—

YEAH, THIS IS ANNOYING. But my theatre newsletter is fun!

Sign up and get curated international coverage + local reviews every Thursday!