Theater

Taylor Mac’s Trailblazing ‘Hir’ Explores Gender Identity to Dramatic Effect

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Hir, a new play by the writer-performer Taylor Mac, depicts a single messed-up family but evokes an America in transition. Like the drama’s transgender character Max (Tom Phelan) and the Connor household, the nation has changed fundamentally and now struggles to locate its real values.

For Max, formerly biological female and now genderqueer, seventeen, and horny, that means detaching from family, letting go of homeschooling, and maybe joining a Radical Fairy commune for a while. Max’s hetero, cisgender older brother Isaac (Cameron Scoggins) has just returned home from Afghanistan, where he collected comrades’ body parts to return to next-of-kin. Everything seems to have turned upside down while he served overseas: Their father, Arnold (Daniel Oreskes), once ill-tempered and violent, has suffered a stroke. Paige (Kristine Nielsen), their overbearing and excitable mother, exacts her revenge by humiliating her infirm husband — dosing him with estrogen, making him wear dresses, and painting his face like a clown.

Amid the emotional tumult, both siblings struggle to find their bearings. Through the family’s collective disorientation — and their unrelentingly shrill, hysterical, and myopic conversations — Mac evokes a larger culture’s drift into destructive uncertainty. As Paige declares, “Max is the root of who we are. The root of who we are and the cusp of the new.”

Though she’s prone to some misguided moralizing, Paige occasionally speaks for the playwright. “What you think you know, you do not know,” she informs her returning warrior son. “There are no longer two genders. No longer simply a Y and X chromosome, but an alphabet of genders.” For the Connor clan, reimagining gender roles is just the beginning of a total transformation; what if we were all prompted to rethink our lives? Change causes pain, of course, and under this roof every family member becomes a casualty as well as a fighter.

Mac’s play marks a thematic advance for American theater, which is still new to this territory. Hir thoughtfully catalogs 21st-century cultural anxieties about gender, religion, illness, and economics. On a theatrical level, however, director Niegel Smith’s production challenges but doesn’t hold us; the script calls for a constant toggling between living-room realism and a heightened “absurdity.” (Think of the high-strung, slightly acidic manner of early Edward Albee.)

The script calls for a constant toggling between living-room realism and a heightened ‘absurdity.’

Onstage, that pivoting between styles can disorient, and not in a productive way. Nielsen in particular plays on a different scale than the others — potentially a provocative choice for this complicated mother of mythic proportions, but Paige’s antics just seem outsized: incongruous rather than dangerous. I wondered, too, if the play might be wilder and less constrained if it let go of domestic reality altogether, underlining the unreal — as it does, briefly, when Paige puts on a deranged shadow-puppet show to air her grievances. That potent scene makes us look far more closely than the didactic stretches about college tuition and the military do.

It’s good news, though, that Mac’s play seriously chafes at domestic drama’s limits. After all, this artist’s political charisma has carried projects in cabaret, drag, Brechtian drama, and musical theater. (Mac is best known for The Lily’s Revenge, a camp-inflected epic, and for the durational concert A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.) Here the playwright undoes traditional family structures in front of our eyes, and no recognizable relationships replace them. No wonder we struggle to watch. As Paige likes to yell while doing a little dance: “Paradigm shift!”

Hir

By Taylor Mac

Playwrights Horizons

416 West 42nd Street

212-564-1235, phnyc.org

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