By LIZ BYRON. “So, what’s the play about?” a friend casually asked me, when I told her I’d seen Mixed Blood Theatre‘s production of HIR. It took me a moment to compose an answer for her, because this play is just so full of story that I didn’t even know where to start. It’s about gender identity and sexuality and acceptance, about domestic abuse and caring for adult dependents.. it’s also about drug abuse, young veterans, the American middle class, and the invisible bonds that we call “family”.
That’s a lot of ground to cover in 105 minutes (including an intermission), but Taylor Mac‘s script winds all these elements together into one rapid but cohesive piece that tells the story of a four-member family struggling to deal with some major changes in all of their lives. Oldest child Isaac (Dustin Bronson) has just returned from his deployment to the Middle East, to find his house and family very much changed since he last saw them: his little sister Maxine is now his sibling Max (Jay Eisenberg), who has taken on the pronouns “ze” and “hir” (ze instead of he/she, hir instead of him/her) and doesn’t specify hir new gender identity. Max and Isaac’s father Arnold (John Paul Gamoke) has suffered a stroke, rendering him speechless and mentally impaired, while their mother Paige (Sally Wingert) has adjusted by adopting a new philosophy on life that includes abandoning all housework and cooking.
It might be a little too much to handle in one go, if there weren’t so many wonderful, snappy lines that allow some laughter in as we revel in the pure absurdity of this world we live in. But for every burst of laughter, there is a moment of tension, which is a tricky balance to strike, and I have to admire both Taylor Mac‘s script and Niegel Smith‘s directing for managing to find that balance — although I was perplexed when the audience burst into laughter at their first sight of Arnold, dressed in a sheer nightgown and an adult diaper, face painted like a clown; I thought, ‘What has lead that poor man to such an undignified get-up?’ while everyone around me laughed hysterically.
This is a great show to see before heading out for drinks/food and discussion; the show is full of ambiguity, leaving lots up to the audience to interpret. The characters verge on being their own caricatures at times, they’re so loud and over-the-top, but there are some very, very real aspects to them. As in real life, there aren’t any clear “good guys” or “bad guys” here. The sympathy we feel for Arnold in his helpless, confused state is blurred by our knowledge of the ill deeds he did before his stroke. We understand Isaac’s distress at returning to a home and family in shambles, but on the other hand, he’s made some pretty serious mistakes of his own, and he does make excessively harsh judgments regarding his mother. We can judge Paige for treating her incapacitated husband so poorly, but we can also rejoice in the satisfaction of taking revenge.
The impact of the story would be impressive on its own, but the experience is made particularly visceral by the setting. Joseph Stanley‘s set, filled (filled!) with props by Abbee Warmboe has to be seen to really be believed, but when the curtain goes up on the first act, the entire audience gasped at the sight before their eyes: a suburban home hit by what can only be described as a tornado of filth. Clothes, dishes, garbage, and food are strewn everywhere. Watching the characters pick their way around — or through — the mess brings the reality of this family’s dysfunction home.
In all, HIR is a hard-hitting play that has a lot of questions to raise about a lot of different issues. It’s not an easy, relaxing show to experience, but it offers a lot of excellent food for thought, and a clever script delivered by an excellent cast.
As an aside to my review of this show in particular, I want to add this: I continue to be impressed by Mixed Blood Theatre for a number of reasons. Their dedication to creating accessibility, for one; their Radical Hospitality program, offering free tickets to anyone who needs them, and in addition to having shows with audio description and ASL interpreting, this performance is also close-captioned on stage via projector. They also have post-show discussions after their performances, including several “salons” with specific topics, AND, they encourage “social media fans” to sit in the back row of the theatre to live Tweet any performance.
HIR by Taylor Mac, runs February 27-March 22, 2015 at the Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S 4th St, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets $0-20 at (612) 338-6131 or http://www.mixedblood.com/boxoffice ; tickets can also be bought at the door on a first-come, first-served basis.