Does blowing up the past necessarily set one free? This is a question among many that playwright Taylor Mac confronts us with in his provocative satire, Hir (pronounced here). This hit play, relatively new, has been staged multiple times over the past handful of years and comes screaming to Melbourne for Midsumma as part of the Red Stitch 2018 Theatre Season.
Taylor 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 which graced our shores last year to critical acclaim.
This piece, just under two hours long as opposed to the 24 hours, is an incredible ride which jolts between kitchen sink American family drama and glorious absurd comedy. It takes the classic American dramatic formula of placing a family under the microscope in order to represent and explore the ills of society the wider society.
In his manifesto on the nature of theatre found on his official website, Mac states that a theatre piece should surprise an audience every ten seconds. This play comes close. With its visual overload, its camp humour and its tackling of the notion that America, and perhaps the rest of the world, may currently be in a state of enormous transition, this play evokes thought and calls into question conventional thinking.
Mac’s characters play with gender and seek to eliminate the binary aspect of it. Using gender politics as a foothold, one of the things this play does is to invite us to think anew, to rethink our old labels and concepts.
Isaac (Jordan Fraser-Tumble) returns home from a call of duty as an American marine to be confronted by a very altered family. His mother, Paige (Belinda McClory), no longer the oppressed wife, has become a force to be reckon with; with her obvious delight in what life now has to offer her, she is like a Playschool presenter who has overdosed on happy gas. Not fearing her husband any longer due to his incapacity following a recent stroke, she finds it befitting to feed him estrogen milkshakes, dress him in female clothing and paint on him a clown face.
So, husband Arnold (Ben Grant) sits in an armchair for most of the first act, like large forgotten and grandfather tortoise, all alone, admonished for his past ill doings. His powerful patriarchal presence in the house is nullified. Isaac’s brother, Max (Harvey Zaska-Zielinski) has become a transgendered person who plays the banjo and enjoys the pleasures of internet porn.
The house is in transition and is a place of experimentation. A new way of doing and thinking is Paige’s goal; there is no more male violence, no more television, the absence of conventional dining tables and absence of the need to do housework. Domesticity takes a back seat to learning; every Saturday is cultural day where museum visits are planned and executed.
Isaac returns home a shattered man, haunted by his time as a marine in Afghanistan and suffering from a drug dependency. A harrowing cry of shock upon seeing his altered father sets the sitcomesque nature of the play and its heightened comedy.
Isaac is questioned by his mother and brother as to why he is not the stereotypical bulky muscular marine, this query all a little ironic as both Max and Paige fight against the machismo in their new world. The play is full of contradictions, sadness and emptiness.
Max is his mother’s muse, or is it the other way around? This mother/son dynamic is intriguing and both fight their corner. Paige tussles with Isaac over his siding with his father, and tussles with him when he tries to influence Max into adopting some of those stereotypical macho behaviours.
Adrienne Chisholm’s set is chaotic, colourful and a feast for the eye on first glance. Adorned with picture and macramé objects (all successfully covering up holes in the wall from the violent punches that occurred prior to Paige’s awakening). The set is used so well in this production conveying the desperate nature of circumstance that the characters face.
Director, Daniel Clarke, has steered this play superbly, lesser hands could have produced it without pathos and too much resentment towards the characters in the play could have easily grown.
This satire uses the gender and gender politics to explore that we can break the mould of the old and break the limited way we define ourselves and pigeon hole others. Although, all of this may come with a cost and the ending leaves us with much to contemplate.
The highlight is Paige, played beautifully by McClory, she is cruel with serene determination to enforce this new life and is determined to stay on the pathway forward. Her final lines of the play are packed with pathos.
Red Stitch Theatre’s new initiative of staging live entertainment in the outside foyer before each of the productions in the 2018 season is a great feature. Gender transcendent diva, Mama Alto, is this production’s live act and it truly is a wonderful way to start proceedings.