Hir, the latest new work to premiere at San Francisco's Magic Theatre comes from New York playwright, artist, and drag performer Taylor Mac, and though he doesn't appear in it, it shows him to be a promising and insightful playwright whose voice is finding new maturity and clarity.
Mac, a onetime Beach Blanket Babylon performer, previously brought his boisterous, epic (and indulgent) five-hour carnival-esque work The Lily's Revenge to the Magic, but that was much less a play than it was a variety show and a work of ensemble performance art in the tradition of the Cockettes. And he's known for such endurance acts, including his work with the Tingel Tangel Club (who performed their variety show into the wee hours here in S.F. a few years back on Valentines Day), and his 24-hour performance piece American Songbook: A 24-Hour History of Popular Music. Hir is much more a traditional play in two acts, set in a family's kitchen and living room in an unnamed, sun-drenched suburb. 21-year-old Isaac returns home from war to find that his mother has let the house fall into total disarray, his father has had a much more severe stroke than he had previously understood, and his younger sister Maxine is now Max (Jax Jackson), an F2M transitioning "fag" who would prefer to go by the gender neutral pronouns ze (pronounced zay, in place of he or she) and hir (pronounced heer, in place of him or her). Ze has facial hair, and muscles, and as hir mother proudly announces, "an enlarged clitoris."
Mac and director Niegel Smith paint a portrait of just-this-side-of-absurd, dystopian family life that is original, dark, and hilariously perverse, yet still mostly believable from beginning to end. Paige (played with marvelous, broad comedy by Nancy Opel), is the long-suffering mother to Isaac and Max and wife to Arnie (Mark Anderson Phillips). She's only recently, since her husband's stroke and daughter's transition, discovered a new sense of herself in the world, and she's pretty thrilled about it. She doesn't clean anymore, doesn't cook, keeps the air conditioner at full blast (her husband always wanted it hot), and revels in the new language of gender and intellectual anti-normativity that Max is teaching her, while Max is ostensibly being "home-schooled." Isaac (Ben Euphrat), dishonorably discharged for drug use and afflicted by frequent bouts of vomiting from his work in the mortuary unit, is unable to cope with how much has changed, no matter how he tries. It's ultimately his battle with his mother over how to move forward that shapes the structure of the play.
While gender informs the underlying themes of Hir, it's a play that's less about gender or trans issues than it is about change, how we handle it and attempt to re-imagine ourselves, and how families morph and unravel. It's a play about family, basically, the fragility of it, and about abuse the always masculine, bigoted, and domineering Arnie, who kept his family living in fear for years while he cheated on his wife, has been reduced to a barely communicative shell of a man whom Paige now squirts with a water bottle to punish him when he acts out. And even though she doesn't know what the future will bring, Paige knows that "Max is the future," and she'd just like to ride along to the Radical Faerie commune Max wants to live on, or go wherever ze goes, for lack of any better plan for herself.
All the performances in the piece are strong, led principally by Opel as Paige, though I question the casting of Phillips as the stroke-ridden Arnie. His performance is believable and commendable, most of it spent in a diaper, but he is far too young for the role, with a full beard that doesn't show a bit of gray, and it seems like the role would have been more powerful with a slightly older actor.
While Hir is easily one of the most fresh and provocative pieces I've seen in the Bay Area theater in several seasons, it still feels like unpolished work, and that can either be exciting or disappointing depending on the audience. I was excited by it right through the final few minutes, when the play's conflicts come to their inevitable explosion. There's a nihilist bleakness to Mac's ending that won't make anyone want to jump to their feet and cheer. And while it's his prerogative as playwright to take us there, it seems to me there are a lot more inspired places this otherwise inspired piece could have gone.
Hir is playing through February 23, at least, at the Magic Theatre. Get tickets here.