Taylor Mac’s “Hir” cultivates mind-bending and gender-bending ideas. What may be its most cogent proclamation, that “everybody is a little bit of everything,” comes from head of the household Paige, who with manic fervor is embracing the new and damning the past. As life dramatically changes in and around her, seemingly by the minute, she’ll freeze in mid-conversation or mid-mannerism and announce “Paradigm shift!”
In this way, and in the play’s verbal storm of gender politics and psychobabble, Mac discourses on the fluidity of gender and the absurdity of institutions restrictive by their rigidity, by their reluctance to accept and even by their tendency to inhumanity. The American family is the institution in the crosshairs of “Hir,” a raucous but congested dark comedy now onstage at Cygnet Theatre under the direction of Rob Lutfy.
This is no Rockwellian family. If soldier Isaac (Dylan Seaton) didn’t get post-traumatic stress disorder from serving in Afghanistan, where his duty was gathering blown-up body parts in the Mortuary Affairs Unit, the house he returns to three years later seems sure to do the trick. His stroke-impaired father Arnold (Joel Castellaw) is dressed in a nightgown, his ashen face smeared with makeup and a fright wig fit for a clown atop his head. He’s also being served estrogen “shakey-shakes” by wife Paige (Deanna Driscoll), who’s let the house turn into a hoarder’s nightmare and who squirts Arnold with water anytime he doesn’t do as told. Then there’s Isaac’s younger sister, Maxine (Avi Roque), who’s injecting testosterone to transgender, and who already has a bit of a beard going.
Isaac (called “I” by his mom, who wants her shocked son to just go with the flow) gapes and runs to the kitchen sink to hurl a lot, an overplayed gesture of horror. Arnold is a pathetic figure later revealed to be much worse than that, while Max affirms a desire to “gender-redefine ‘here-story.” (“Hir” is Max’s chosen third-person pronoun.) Paige’s symbiotic relationship with Max is tied up in her own crisis of identity and purpose. The dishonorably discharged (for drug use) “I” – another play on pronoun? – and his macho desire for order have no place in Paige’s reconstructed domain.
The production’s very physicality and penchant for sight gags, whether they include a plastic water bottle, a banjo or a trove of garish wigs, feed the comedy but actually diminish the import of what Mac may be saying about gender and personal liberation. It’s not until well into Act 2 that the laughter is jolted away as if by electrodes, and who these people are crystallizes.
In any case, Driscoll, a fearless performer, rides this Tilt-a-Whirl of a narrative with limbs flying, leaving everything out there on the Old Town stage. Roque, who identifies as Latinx Trans/Non Binary, brings layers of vulnerability to the changing Max. Paige and Max are “Hir’s” heart and soul, a mother and child making different but deeply defining transitions amid the fray.
(Review originally published in San Diego Union-Tribune on 10/8/18.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.