It’s interesting that this past week Facebook finally allowed users to choose a gender identity other than simply male or female, because there’s been a little mini-trend of new plays in the Bay Area that directly confront the binary conception of gender identity. In October the Cutting Ball Theater premiered Basil Kreimendahl’s Sidewinders, an absurdist Western homage to Waiting for Godot fixated on androgynous anatomy and identity. Now Magic Theatre has premiered Taylor Mac’s pitch-black comedy Hir, featuring a transsexual character who, though born physically female and taking testosterone, identifies as a third gender entirely, using the pronouns “ze” and “hir.” It’s an encouraging trend, even if I don’t think much of the plays themselves.
Back at the Magic after his five-hour 2011 fantasia The Lily’s Revenge, Taylor Mac unveils a play that features a whole lot of talk about breaking out of an outmoded paradigm of binary gender identity, and in fact the transgender angle seems like the most normal (and certainly the most palatable) thing about Hir.
A young soldier, Isaac, comes home from the war to find that his abusive father, Arnold, has been reduced to a state of near-infancy by a stroke, and Isaac’s mother now dolls Arnie up in makeup and dresses out of spite. Dad always liked things clean and tidy, so mother Paige also refuses to let anyone clean anything in the house ever. (Alexis Distler’s marvelously detailed set is bursting with massive piles of clothes and takeout containers strewn all over the kitchen, though the small living room behind it looks conspicuously tidy.) And oh yeah, his sister, Max, now has a scraggly beard and boasts of having a dick.
It’s a very cruel play about very cruel people, and one of the things that’s hardest about it is that by far the most sympathetic character is the one who may be the worst of the lot. By that I mean Arnold, who from all we’ve been told used to be a real rat bastard—racist, sexist, abusive, domineering, and resentful of everyone. But of course we weren’t around for any of that and never saw that side of him. Endearingly, played by Mark Anderson Phillips he’s achingly pathetic in how eagerly he plays dress-up and follows all of Paige’s orders, every one of which is designed to debase him. She keeps the house freezing with an air conditioner, not because she likes it cold but because Arnie always hated it that way.
Prodigal son Isaac (nicknamed “I” to add to the pronoun confusion) is aghast at everything he comes home to. Far from being happy to see him, his mom doesn’t seem to care at all that he’s home, having eyes only for the delightful novelty of what’s going on with Max. Ben Euphrat is effectively flummoxed and distressed by it all as Isaac, though the running gag of him throwing up all the time gets old pretty quick. (He says it has more to do with his wartime job of body-part retrieval than what’s going on at home.) Isaac hated what his father did as much as anyone, but he also can’t bear to see him treated this way, and there’s something ominous about the way he tries to remind his father who he was, even if who he was is nothing anyone would want him to be.
Other than the gender-neutral pronouns, Max is mostly guy-identified, indulging in a little macho bonding with Isaac, much to Paige’s annoyance. (“Why are you acting so butch all of a sudden?” she moans. “Where’s my sissy transman?”) When Isaac tries to bond over interest in girls, Max says with glee, “I’m a fag!” As played by transgender actor Jax Jackson, Max is very much a teenager, sullen and plaintive, filled with crackpot theories stated as fact with no one to contradict hir, because ze’s dropped out of school to homeschool hirself, and all mom does is coo that ze’s blowing her mind with these “paradigm shifts.” Even Max seems terrified at times that Paige latches onto all of hir whimsical assertions as if they were the foundation of a new philosophy and life plan.
Portrayed with sitcom chirpiness by Nancy Opel, Paige doesn’t really give a crap about anything anymore except about not giving a crap about anything. Her refusal to clean anything or allow anyone else to clean extends to letting the diapered Arnold wallow in his filth. She dotes on Max, but not so much as a complex person as in the way you might delight in a pet’s new tricks. At the same time, Max is the only thing she even comes close to taking seriously anymore, aside from making things uncomfortable for Arnie.
“I realize if you met me today you would not like me much,” Paige says, and that’s an understatement—the only understated thing about her. However she got that way, now she’s a monster with no redeeming features whatsoever, and her singsong chipperness about it is too over-the-top to be believable, not just in the way it’s played but in the way the character is written.
And here’s what I don’t get: I think maybe the play’s supposed to be funny. There’s certainly a lot of goofiness going on in director Niegel Smith’s staging, but it’s overshadowed by the intolerable cruelty. By the same token, there’s some soberingly disturbing stuff in there about abusive family dynamic, but it’s tied up in such a ludicrous package that it seems like we’re being asked not to take it seriously, to cast our lot with the rottenest of a family of bad and broken eggs and just say to hell with everything.
Show #13 of 2014, attended February 4.