mon 15/04/2024

Hir, Park Theatre review - incendiary production for Taylor Mac's rich absurdist family drama | reviews, news & interviews

Hir, Park Theatre review - incendiary production for Taylor Mac's rich absurdist family drama

Hir, Park Theatre review - incendiary production for Taylor Mac's rich absurdist family drama

Felicity Huffman, heading a superb cast, is a force of nature

Pale and male: Simon Startin as Arnold, Steffan Cennydd as Isaac, with Felicity Huffman in the backgroundPamela Raith Photography

In 2017, two years after Hir premiered, Taylor Mac was awarded a “Genius Grant” and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for drama. The new production of Hir at the Park demonstrates why. It’s a rich, provocative piece about the ideas that drive us now, thrown into a blender and blitzed.

Mac is a Swiss Army knife of a creative force: performer, singer/songwriter, writer, performance artist, director, producer. His preferred pronouns are judy/judy’s – not a reference, he has insisted, to Judy Garland but to the custom of gay men to disguise their boyfriends by calling them Judy or Mary. (That said, the transitioning teen in Hir uses the pronoun “Z”.)

Hir is delectably absurdist, laced with lacerating wit and pulsating with the heat of debates about preferred pronouns and “hirstory”. Its dysfunctional family of four live in a rickety house in California built by father Arnold (Simon Startin) on a landfill site, the starter home they never moved out of. Arnold, post-stroke, has become a mentally impaired baby-man in an incontinence diaper. We first meet him dressed as a clown, with full slap and a pink bubble wig, watching a little television where Pete Seeger is singing “Little Boxes”, as if a commentary on the family home. All around him on the floor are piles of laundry and bric-a-brac: children’s toys, a rubber chicken, a large doll’s head.

As soon as his wife Paige (Felicity Huffman, pictured below) enters, she switches on the air-conditioning unit, which Arnold hates as it makes him too cold. This on/off battle is just one way Paige shows her contempt for Arnold. He spends most of his time dosed up on a “shakey-shake” of large quantities of his medications blended up with milk. Paige glacially reckons that he won’t live long, so he might as well have loads of the pills at once. When he breaks one of her many rules, which range from using bad grammar and language (“Penis!” he shouts out, and “Rib!”, his nickname for Paige) to failing to obey her, she turns a plant sprayer on him, as one does a mischievous cat.

Paige has become an over-adopter of current notions of right thinking, from radical feminism to gender-fluidity. The spur for this comes partly from her trans younger child (Thalia Dudek), now a muscly figure with downy face hair whose ingestion of “mones" is reportedly doing wonders for the size of her clitoris. But Paige, we learn, has also been the victim of Arnold’s physical abuse, and so she is bent on humiliating him and all the other white men losing their status as patriarchs in an increasingly diverse society. “He lost his job to an American-Chinese woman plumber,” she snorts. 

But is her son Isaac (Steffan Cennydd) another straight white man she needs to eradicate? Returning home like Orestes confronting his homicidal mother and similarly pursued by furies (PTSD), we learn he was dishonourably discharged from being a “mortuary affairs” marine in Afghanistan – that is, he picked up body parts to repatriate them. Isaac is a catalyst for even greater upheaval in this rackety family.

Mac has huge fun with this set-up, thematically and theatrically. He teases out Paige’s notions about “hirstory”, recycled from Max, who with standard teenage reforming zeal wants nothing less than a wholescale revamp of society and its values. But the play also plays with the typical “family space” of modern American drama (Shepard, LaBute, Letts et al), then bursts out of it from within, like the alien in Alien. Felicity Huffman in HirPaige has been reading alternative notions of evolution, concluding that we are “all everything”, all fish, a bit black, a bit gay. Paige too is “everything” now: mother, father, hir. She makes us ask: how much chaos can you create without being engulfed by it yourself? Can family bonds simply be intellectualised away? If you get rid of old rules, won’t you still need new ones? How liberating is that, really?

Isaac, in between vomiting bouts, is a worthy antagonist for Paige and Max and their ideas, such as that Noah was transphobic in taking one of each gender into the Ark; and where were the squid in this arrangement? An exasperated Isaac, in one of many snort-out-loud lines, points out that squid don’t need to be on a boat to get around. But the total lack of rules in the housekeeping – even cupboards don’t have an assigned identity here; books go in the fridge – finally gets to him, and he begins to clean up…

Steve Kunis has marshalled a fine team for this treat, from Ceci Calf's wonderfully trashy set, including a batik wall-hanging celebrating LGBTQQIAA, to an intricate sound design by Roly Botha, which weaves “Little Boxes” through bursts of helicopter whirring and A/C unit buzzing. The first act ends with the most impressive set change you will witness close up.

Huffman, making her British stage debut, is a force of nature, strident and commanding (though I suspect her lovely loungewear cost more than this hard-up family can afford). She goes creditably mano a mano with Isaac, two traditional sources of power warring over territory they have probably already lost. Cennydd and Dudek are real finds, strongly characterised yet tender too; their sibling affection is palpable. And huge kudos to Startin, who has one of the most thankless roles currently onstage.

What impresses about the piece is, unexpectedly, the humanity and warmth at its core. Mac’s characters do and say despicable things yet somehow live within the bounds of realism and don’t become total monsters. It’s a dazzling reductio ad absurdum of the traditional suffocating-family drama, yet one where wisdom has not totally disappeared. Max, for all her radical grandstanding, has the key line in the piece, when she declares that gender is “an everyday occurrence”, no big deal. “It just is.” There are no pat answers offered to the questions the play raises, but they are brilliant, unsettling questions. 

Even cupboards don’t have an assigned identity here; books go in the fridge

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters