BWW Review: ArtsWest's HIR Takes Gender/Family Issues to an Absurd Level, and That's Funny?
There seems to be a spate of plays getting a lot of critical acclaim these days that take on societal changes and amp them up to an extreme and absurd level. For example, the recent "Straight White Men" that looked at white male privilege. And now we have the gender conformity examining "Hir" by Taylor Mac, currently playing at ArtsWest. The thing is they keep billing these as comedies and touting them for their daring. Daring, maybe as they tackle subjects that make people uncomfortable, but comedy, no. As was the case with "Straight White Men", "Hir" takes everything to an absurd level, and don't get me wrong I love an absurd comedy, but they do it in such a way that by the end there is not one likable character.
In Mac's play we open on a truly disturbing scene, a house in disarray, a man obviously with some kind of handicap slumped in a chair with a rainbow afro wig and gaudy makeup all over him wearing a soiled nightgown, and a woman dancing around and reveling in it all. Enter Isaac (Evan Barrett), a soldier home from the war, who's horrified to find his childhood home and his family in this state. His mother Paige (Gretchen Krich), the aforementioned reveler, explains that his father Arnold (Charles Leggett), the man in the chair, had a stroke about a year ago which freed her up to live her live as she saw fit. She's chosen to eschew all societal norms, like cleaning, and instead devote herself to the enrichment of her other child, formerly Maxine and now Max (Adrian Kljucec), a transgender boy who insists on being referred to with the new pronouns of ze and hir (pronounced like "here"). As for Arnold, she bullies him, dresses him up in women's clothes and keeps him drugged up as she feels he deserves no better for the abusive way he treated her and the family in the past.
So, are you seeing the comedy here? Neither did I. It's billed as a dark comedy but there's dark and then there's "why the hell do you want me to laugh at this?" Spousal abuse in either direction is not funny. Abuse of an invalid relative is not funny. Yet there's plenty of both as we find that Arnold would beat his wife and kids and it only got worse when he lost his job ultimately leading to his stroke. Now that he's incapacitated Paige and Max humiliate and threaten him as a kind of revenge. When Isaac shows up he tries to bring in his own norm which seems to be more of a hyper-masculine way of thinking and attempts to awaken that in his father which clashes with Paige and Max's gender non-conformity paradigm ultimately leading to even more heinous acts and violence. Now everybody laugh?
The cast does what they can. Krich is a manic freight train and always engaging. Leggett is superb as he manages to communicate without saying much at all and turns in a hell of a performance of man with his world taken away. Kljucec commits to everything and sells the struggling, searching teen. And Barrett has tons of presence but needed more emotion and levels to back up his character. But the biggest issue, and this could stem from the script as well, is that no one grows. There is no arc or journey for anyone. In the end they're all the same mess they were in the beginning just with more open wounds. Now laugh again?
I'm just not a fan of the trend of calling plays important just because they dare to talk about hot button topics. How about talk about them and still entertain or engage? It's been done in the past and I'm sure it can be done in the future too. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give ArtsWest's production of "Hir" a still not laughing NAH. I know, in this catty society, we're supposed to relish in these moments of being able to laugh at these people instead of with them, but I just don't work like that. I still want someone to root for.
"Hir" performs at ArtsWest through March 25th. For tickets or information visit them online at www.artswest.org.