“Hir,” Taylor Mac’s play about a dishonorably discharged Marine returning home to a household in the full thrall of radical-lefty chaos, is a tough — but hilariously rewarding — pill to swallow.
How many reactions can one play provoke in just two hours?
On the night I attended “Hir” at ArtsWest — by performance artist/playwright/drag subversive Taylor Mac — most of the audience laughed, several confused-looking people left during intermission and, once the play ended, at least two people were locked in the theater’s gender-neutral bathroom stalls, sobbing.
Whatever you think of “Hir,” the play is achieving its purpose — provoking. And provoking is Mac’s magical gift.
Nothing about Mac is simple. Mac’s preferred gender pronoun is “judy” (which has surely vexed copy editors across the country for several years), and judy’s work tends to defy categories. Is it cabaret? Performance art? Theater? An elaborate form of protest people buy tickets to watch? All of the above? Perhaps even judy doesn’t know.
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Mac is a cultural jester — a fool in the Shakespearean sense of the wise idiot who cracks jokes in the middle of a storm — and can deftly stab a fork into raw psychological wounds. But “Hir,” like much of judy’s work, is more stimulating if you watch it like a game of cultural chess.
Mac has written what seems like a normal play (two acts, four characters, family drama), but it ends up tasting like Edward Albee (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) ate “Paris Is Burning” (the 1991 documentary about New York City drag culture in largely African-American and Latino communities), then drank a gallon of pretentious soapboxing by college freshmen on the first day of a 101 queer-theory class, then barfed the entire mélange into a sadistic, kitchen-sink drama.
Confused? A little queasy? Good. That’s what “Hir” is trying to do.
The basic framing of “Hir” sounds like a torturously complicated setup for a joke at a monthly, trans-friendly stand-up comedy night at, say, Wellesley College.
Four marginalized people walk into a filthy, cluttered living room: (1) A young, male Marine who’s just returned home from a recent desert war where his job was to pick up exploded body parts of fellow soldiers, but was dishonorably discharged for methamphetamine use. (2) His little transgender brother (formerly sister), who is newly liberated and self-righteous and wants to smash the patriarchy by joining a queer anarchist commune in Oregon. (3) Their mother, who used to be an abused housewife, but has leveraged her trans son’s journey into a gleeful destruction of her own past. (In the opening lines of the play, the Marine tells his mom that the household clutter is a fire hazard. “Oh!” she says, “wouldn’t that be wonderful.”) (4) The father, who lived an entirely conventional, and sometimes family-abusing life, but recently suffered a debilitating stroke and has become a grotesque whipping boy for his, and the history of patriarchy’s, sins. (The mother and younger son sedate him each day, smear him with makeup, make him wear pink dresses and perform skits about his infidelities, spray him with a plastic bottle like he’s an ill-behaved cat, etc. That’s their idea of fun.)
The young Marine is horrified by his homecoming: piles of laundry everywhere; anarchy symbols scrawled on the wall; a mother and once-sister-now-brother who’ve sprouted into flowers of leftist sanctimony; and a slurring, confused father, who looks like he just got ejected from a dive bar for being too intoxicated to participate in a Bozo the Clown drag contest.
Now for the punchline: Who has the strongest, most humane moral compass in this household? The once-tyrannical but now-victimized father, the vengeful (but radically progressive and sex-positive!) mother, the stridently progressive trans son, or the war veteran who got fired from doing the dirty work on a bloody battlefield because he had a hard-drug habit?
It’s a race to the bottom. Gretchen Krich plays the mother with a quavering voice but unquenchable lust for her newfound power. (As her veteran son tries to start tidying up, she pronounces like a queen: “We don’t do cupboards anymore. We don’t do order.”) As the baffled Marine, Evan Barrett telegraphs an exquisite blend of trying to accommodate the family craziness while struggling to establish some modicum of household dignity. But, of course, folding clothes, cleaning the kitchen and trying to figure out the proper pronouns only dig him deeper into the trench of being, as his mother cheerfully describes herself, “a troglodyte, heteronormative fascist.”
“The whole world is made for people like you,” his little brother Max (Adrian Kljucec) snarls at one point. Except it’s not. The young Marine is a pariah everywhere he goes, from his guts-retrieval job on the battlefield to his drug-related court-martial to his family living room.
And this is Mac’s most subversive move — judy hangs the young, straight, white, confused-but-well-meaning military man on a cross for us to pity, and casts the newly “liberated” mother and trans brother as selfish brutes. The critique of anarcho-queer-radical politics is especially withering because it’s not coming from some heteronormative fascist on a right-wing blog. Judy’s call is coming from inside the house.
As “Hir” marches on to its conclusion — a truly grim, blasted emotional landscape, despite the glittery blizzard of camp and wit in the first act — the mother says the cruelest thing I can possibly imagine a mother saying to her son.
I won’t spoil that for you — but go see “Hir,” and find out whether you laugh, leave at intermission, or find yourself weeping in the bathroom. Or, perhaps, all three.
“Hir” by Taylor Mac. Through March 25; ArtsWest, 4711 California Ave. S.W., Seattle; $17-$38, 206-938-0339, artswest.org.
In addition, Taylor Mac will be at the Moore Theatre, performing “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Act VII),” on April 20; stgpresents.org.