From the moment you walk into the theatre for the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s production of Taylor Mac’s “Hir,” you wonder what kind of eclectic madness you’ve gotten yourself into.
Confronted by the motley, compulsively disorganized mess of a set that seems to overflow from the stage and encroach on the “safe space” of the audience, it’s clear there’s a lot going on in this play – and the first actor hasn’t even appeared onstage yet.
The Odyssey production is the L.A. premiere of the play, which was written in 2014, just before the gender-bending, boundary-pushing playwright’s epic “24-Decade History of Popular Music” became an award-winning cultural phenomenon. Mac’s most autobiographical work, in some ways, “Hir” is a spectacle of an entirely different kind. It’s a portrait of a dysfunctional American family ravaged by the “culture wars,” devolving into chaos as they try to find stable ground in the ever-shifting landscape of ideological “correctness.”
It’s also a work of darkly hilarious absurdity.
Deliberately structured like the classic “family drama” plays of such 20th-century writers as O’Neill, Miller, and Sam Shepard (whose “Buried Child” allegedly served as direct inspiration), it takes us into the living room of a “typical” American household as the eldest son, Isaac, returns from three years of horrific combat duty in Afghanistan, dishonorably discharged for being a meth addict. All he wants is to be home again, but the home he remembers no longer exists. His tyrannical father, Arnold, has suffered a debilitating stroke, and his mother, Paige, has declared her independence from her former abuser; now she exacts merciless revenge by humiliating him and embracing radical ideas she knows would infuriate him. And then there’s Max, his little sister-turned-brother, whose trans-masculine journey has made him (or rather “hir,” the gender-neutral preferred pronoun of the title) a grudging cultural guide for hir mother on the way to a socially progressive, non-binary future.
That’s just the starting point. Isaac’s homecoming pits him against Paige, who finds herself having to defend her newfound freedom as he desperately tries to gather the pieces of the life she has rejected and put them back together. She has revolted against the patriarchy; he wants to rebuild it. Arnold, despite his occasional garbled protestations, can do little more than disappear further into the oblivion of his near-vegetative state, and Max is too much the moody teenager – doubly so because of the hormone treatments – to do anything but criticize and goad from the sidelines.
These four characters are richly drawn by playwright Mac, who has managed to endow each of them with painful humanity while still using the broad strokes of social satire and absurdist theatre. Even so, as they enact the struggle for what the new world will be, they become a kind of disfigured archetypes – reflexively posturing and proclaiming with weary desperation and shot through with the inescapable dread of an uncertain future.
All of which seems very heady, in writing; onstage, however, thanks to Bart DeLorenzo’s sure-handed direction and an immensely talented quartet of actors, it’s gripping, clever, savage, funny, shocking, rousing, transgressive – all the things that make for a thrilling theatrical experience.
DeLorenzo takes advantage of the Odyssey’s intimate space to mount the show as though it were happening in the audience’s own living room; this approach to the staging evokes one of those gritty, Norman Lear sitcom classics – one that combines the confrontational social commentary of “All in the Family” with the surreal suburban angst of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” – and allows us the illusion of safety afforded by knowing what we are seeing is “comedy,” even when it veers into topics that push our most uncomfortable buttons.
Cynthia Kania, as Paige, is the rock on which the show is built; she exudes the cheery warmth and pluck of the iconic suburban housewife, yet underneath she is harrowed, desperate, even dangerous. She goes from doting mother to gleeful tormentor without missing a beat, and when the conflict inevitably escalates to the point of final, cataclysmic action, we already know she is ready to take it. She is a force to be reckoned with.
As Isaac, Zack Gearing is similarly haunted; projecting an image of staunch-yet-sensitive masculinity, his persona feels hollow, unsteady, lost, and as he struggles to create order in the chaos of his childhood home, his palpable fear of losing himself makes him compelling and sympathetic even in his angriest, most oppressive moments.
Ron Bottitta, as Arnold, is remarkable; at once grotesque and pathetic, he shambles around the stage like a re-animated shell, a pale shadow of the terrifying monster we are told he once was, and never seems anything less than human. Non-binary actor Puppett, as Max, is a lovably awkward doofus, combining the mercurial temperament of a hormone-ridden teenager with the fierce “wokeness” of a zealous social justice warrior; they bring heart and hope to the show, without sacrificing the edginess that makes their character a flash point for the show’s most extreme issues.
There are a lot of other top-grade contributions that help make “Hir” work – the layered disarray of Thomas A. Walsh’s scenic design, for example, and the subtle messaging of Merrily Murray-Walsh’s costumes – but it’s this cast, and the guidance of their director, that makes it into one of those unequivocally superb evenings of theater that only come along once or twice per season. More than capable of conveying the inner complexities of their characters, they are also skilled enough with the language that they find the musicality of Mac’s words and make the play truly “sing.”
As for those words, they will make you laugh a lot – this is a comedy, after all – but they will also provoke you, challenge you, disturb you, outrage you; and at the end, when all the secrets and lies have been exposed, and all the questions have been raised, they won’t provide answers.
In the theater of Taylor Mac, you have to come up with those on your own.