Fighting the patriarchy

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Hir Photo credit: Enci Box

In Taylor Mac’s play “Hir” (spelled H-I-R - more on that in a minute), the old order simply won’t stand.

As the play opens, Isaac has just gotten out of the military and wants nothing more than to return to the order of his childhood home.  He’s banging on the door but, as we’ll discover, it’s both literally and metaphorically blocked. Once he makes it in, he discovers that nothing is as he left it.  His dad had a stroke but that’s not quite as shocking as the fact that he’s all made up, wearing a dress, and taking estrogen. This is not the strict authoritarian plumber Isaac left behind.  The once orderly house is a disheveled mess: stickers on the cabinets, laundry everywhere. As his mom Paige explains: “We’ve stopped doing laundry, we’ve stopped doing order.”

Then Isaac discovers that his sister Maxine is now his transitioning brother Max.  Hir is Max’s preferred gender pronoun - a combination of him and her.

Isaac can’t take it. He keeps vomiting in the sink.

All of this seems to be his mother’s doing, with some coaching and assistance from Max.  With the men of the house gone, Isaac to the army and her husband to a stroke, she decided she’s had enough of the patriarchy.
Playwright Taylor Mac is probably better known as the remarkable performance artist and drag queen at the center of “24 Decade History of Popular Music.”  While that work almost surgically dissected the history of patriarchy and oppression over the course of 24 hours, “Hir” is conceptually rich without being as dramatically engaging.

The play, in part, is clearly and intentionally a didactic exercise. Paige, the mom, even pulls out a chart during a monologue on gender pronouns and the landscape of gender fluidity.  The problem is the play struggles to transcend it’s ideas and find a driving force beyond them.

This production, as solid as it is, never really fills in an emotional landscape to keep things alive.  Scenes feel more like ideas being imparted than a rich drama of individuals trying to forge some new order. There’s so much conceptual exposition that characters lurk in the background waiting for an argument to end - as if their needs could simply be put on hold while this other business played out.  

On a deeper level, that’s Taylor Mac’s point.  This is a family play where the traditional “winners” are losers.  The, presumably, unintentional irony is that for a play trying to upend the old order, formally “Hir” is a pretty traditional family drama.  It’s a play about unearthing a family’s secrets and bringing people to account. The dramaturgical challenge is that Taylor Mac has, with that stroke and those estrogen shakes, neutered the primary antagonist - which lessens the excitement.

By the time we get to the emotional climax, we’ve spent so much time poking fun at the patriarchy that it’s demise isn’t as shocking and profound as it should be.  The deeper ideas are more profound than this play allows, the struggle more consequential.

Is it worth seeing?

If you’re offended by the very premise? Yes.  If you’re sick of seeing the same stories over and over again? Yes, with caveats. Just know that the first steps on any new journey can be a bit bumpy.

“Hir” plays at the Odyssey Theatre in West LA through March 17th.
Credits

Host:
Anthony Byrnes