REVIEW: “HIR” at Shakespeare & Company

by Macey Levin

Editor’s Note: The playwright’s preferred pronoun is judy.

Since the classic Greeks created the drama there have been plays about dysfunctional families starting with Oedipus Rex followed by Hamlet, A Doll’s House, The Little Foxes, A Long Day’s Journey…, Buried Child, and now we have HIR by Taylor Mac at Shakespeare and Company’s Bernstein Theatre in Lenox, MA.  It is an edgy production of a brutal play.

Isaac (Adam Huff) expects to come home to serenity after a three-year stint in Afghanistan where he worked with the Mortuary Service retrieving body parts.  He has been dishonorably discharged for using drugs.  The living room/kitchen area is a mess with clothes strewn everywhere and nothing in the room is clean.  His father Arnold (John Hadden,) who sleeps in a cardboard carton, is in a nightgown wearing an ugly multi-colored wig, his face painted with grotesque makeup.  Isaac is greeted by his mother Paige (Elizabeth Aspenlieder) who explains the chaos along with the empty cupboards with the phrase “We don’t do that anymore.”  She proselytizes the family’s new “philosophy” of challenging accepted norms.  Isaac tentatively greets his sister, now his transgendered teen-age brother, Max (Jack Doyle) an acolyte of their mother’s new approach to life.

Arnold has had a stroke and is in a childlike state unable to be conversant.  After years of mistreating his family physically and psychologically, Paige has exacerbated his condition by not ministering to his needs and by wresting control of the family’s life.  Despite her seemingly gracious manner she rules with an iron fist and brooks no disagreement; she is a beast under the beauty.  To ameliorate Max’s transition, she changes pronouns.  They no longer use “him” or “her”; it is “hir” or “ze” so that there is no specific gender identity.  Max’s one area of disagreement with Paige is his desire to live in an anarchistic Faerie commune.

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As Isaac becomes aware of the severity of the family’s transformation, he becomes determined to rectify the conditions and put things back into their proper order.  He and Paige become antagonists, Max remaining neutral and Arnold largely unaware.  The sporadic confrontations are occasionally softened by moments of familial love and concern.

Taylor Mac is an Obie Award winning playwright/performance artist who has received a MacArthur Fellow “Genius” grant.  Many of judy’s plays are dark comedies with strong thematic statements.  In HIR judy addresses physical and emotional abuse, drug addiction, PTSD, sexual identity and the growing termination of familial values and security.  Calling the play “absurd realism,” Mac indulges in outrageous maltreatment of his characters.  The first act is a TV sitcom gone wild with preposterous dialogue and attitudes producing many guffaws, while act two grows darker as the humor evaporates.

Director Alice Reagan has staged the play effectively by keeping the manic moments under control but not minimizing the burgeoning hostility amongst the family members.  Her actors endow their roles with intelligence and energy.  Aspenlieder, a S&Co. stalwart, imbues Paige with an evangelistic spirit allowing her viciousness to emerge as situations warrant.   Her treatment of Arnold is almost savage as Hadden appears emotionally paralyzed and he captures the physicality of his post-stroke personality or lack thereof.  Huff’s Isaac is appropriately tormented when he realizes his dreams of peace are beyond him and that he must seize control of his family’s future.  Max is the softest member of the clan and Doyle uses that is a key to his opposition to those proposals with which he disagrees.  The four actors work well together to give credibility to the play’s various transitions.

Carolyn Mraz has created a seedy set that depicts the psychological nature of the characters.  Even after Isaac tries to bring order to the house, Paige disrupts everything as a matter of course.  Costume designer Charlotte Palmer-Lane has outfitted the cast realistically, including Arnold’s bizarre clothing forced on him by Paige.  The lighting design by Deb Sullivan complements the tone of the play as Amy Altadonna’s original music enhances the production.

HIR is an absorbing and bruising piece of theatre, but its intriguing situation and comments are provocative and worth a visit.

HIR by Taylor Mac; directed by Alice Reagan: Cast: Elizabeth Aspenlieder (Paige) Jack Doyle (Max) John Hadden (Arnold) Adam Huff (Isaac); Set Designer: Carolyn Mraz; Costume Designer: Charlotte Palmer-Lane; Lighting Designer: Deb Sullivan; Sound Designer/Composer: Amy Altadonna; Assistant Director: Mary Corinne Miller; Stage Manager: Fran Rubinstein; Running time: 2 hours, including one intermission; Shakespeare & Company, Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre; September 13 – October 7, 2018.

 

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