After bringing two live extravaganzas to Los Angeles in the last two years, Taylor Mac – the boundary-pushing playwright, actor, singer-songwriter, performance artist, director, and producer – has gained an enthusiastic audience among local theatre-goers.
Mac (who uses “judy,” lowercase sic, not as a name but as a gender pronoun) has received multiple awards – including the Kennedy Prize, New York Drama Critics Circle Award, two Bessies, two Obies, the McArthur “Genius” Grant, and a Guggenheim Fellowship – and was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Drama for “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music in America.”
Now, one of “judy’s” most acclaimed plays is being mounted by the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, which will open its 50th anniversary season with the L.A. premiere of “Hir.”
The word “hir” is a gender-neutral, third-person singular object pronoun that replaces the use of him or her. According to Mac, “The title is a metaphor. It’s pronounced ‘here,’ and I enjoy the duality of something being about gender and also about place.”
Hilarious and terrifying, “Hir” is a dysfunctional family dramedy for a new era: a highly intelligent, heartfelt, and deeply humorous portrayal of a family in crisis – in which domestic abuse, the trauma of war and the acceptance of gender neutrality are illustrated in a nearly absurd, emotionally gripping, intensely real dynamic. Somewhere in the American suburbs, Isaac, dishonorably discharged from his tour in Afghanistan, has returned home to discover a household in revolt. The insurgent: his mom. Liberated from an oppressive marriage to Isaac’s father by his debilitating stroke, and with Max, Isaac’s newly out transgender sibling, as her ally, Paige is on a crusade to dismantle the patriarchy.
The play, like most of Mac’s work, is an outrageous exploration of American culture; described in the press release as “a darkly funny, shockingly absurd and endlessly surprising vision of a world in transition,” it’s cut from the same edgy, theatrical cloth that Mac is known and lauded for.
Even so, director Bart DeLorenzo asserts that, at its core, “Hir” is really “a classic American play,” with all the familiar elements of the gritty, “kitchen sink” dramas written by such 20th-century playwrights as Arthur Miller.
“It’s set in a family home,” he explains. “There’s a family with conflicts, with secrets; there’s a son who’s coming home from the war and everything is changing.”
From there, however DeLorenzo says the play takes the formula and “sets it spinning.” He is also quick to point out that, despite its old-school roots, “Hir” is up-to-the-minute contemporary. “It’s about the future of America and how we might break into the next moment.”
He continues, “This country, in its defining documents, was seeking to transition from autocratic rule to individual rights, but how far did we get?” He says the play’s argument is “the opposite of the ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan – unless you’re willing to overlook and ignore quite a lot, this country has never been great, it has never lived up to the promise of its constitutional freedoms. But, from this point on, many voices contend, it will have to.”
In the course of the play, Mac covers a lot of topics that are at the center of the “culture wars” in today’s America; not surprisingly for an artist known for challenging gender norms, some of the most prominent themes have to do with queer identity and the need to move beyond binary understanding.
Key to this aspect of the production is Puppett, a non-binary actor who plays Max – the newly transitioning teen-ager who gives voice to a lot of its edgiest ideas – and who says “Hir” couldn’t be more timely.
“Where we’re at right now,” they say, “is the breakthrough into the mainstream of talking about the existence of transgender people – which is good – but it’s mostly been from a binary standpoint, of transitioning from one gender to the other. The play introduces the conversation that there are more than two genders.”
Puppett believes that Max’s position in the play’s family dynamic is an essential part of getting the message across. “Paige [the mother] gives a lot of importance to Max’s ideas about the ‘doing away’ of binaries,” they say, “and that allows for the audience to hear them more than they would otherwise.”
“Max is in a place in their life that makes sense for a seventeen-year-old,” they continue, “where they have a lot of ideas that are ‘facts’ for a couple days and then everything changes – everything feels like it’s the ‘truth’ but the ‘truth’ is always changing. That’s true of everyone in the play but I think it’s the most age-appropriate for Max.”
Puppett says this youthful perspective provides a comedic element that is crucial to opening minds. “There’s importance in looking at who Max is,” they say, “but also there’s a lot of humor in the extreme of them and the things they say, and I think that people who identify with Max will also be able to laugh at themselves through the things that Max says.”
“It’s a really great comedy,” they continue, “which is not always obvious from the synopsis. It’s really funny, and it gives equal weight to the absurdity of each character. That makes things more accessible, so I’m hoping that people who are less familiar with some of the topics will be able to have it as an easier access point.”
That doesn’t mean “Hir” makes light of the difficult questions it raises. Puppett says, “There’s a lot left for you to chew on after the play’s over. I think it brings up more questions than answers, which is ultimately useful.”
They add, “The play does a good job of teaching the audience through the characters being taught, without placing all the burden on the queer character – which I think is really smart. All of the characters are exploring and changing, and it pushes the audience into the same space by the end.”
That doesn’t mean Puppett doesn’t feel some weight on their shoulders. “It’s a role which can be seen as representing a large portion of the queer community,” they say. “One role can’t speak for everyone, but some people in the audience might perceive it that way, and that does feel like a large responsibility.”
Asked whether it’s intimidating to take on such a key role in a play by one of America’s most original and important contemporary voices, Puppett stops to consider.
“That part of it hasn’t occurred to me yet,” they say. “But if I think about it hard enough, it might be, so I’m gonna try not to.”
“Hir” runs January 19 – March 17 at The Odyssey Theatre (2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles, 90025). For exact performance schedule, reservations and information, call (310) 477-2055 or go to OdysseyTheatre.com.