Taylor Mac’s Hir is a mess — but it’s a seething, evocative, darkly funny mess tangled in a host of issues, with sex and gender at their center. Isaac, a Marine whose job in Afghanistan was collecting body parts to return to soldiers’ families, has just come home to find that his own family has turned into a twisted clown show over which his mother, Paige, presides with sadistic glee. In his absence, his racist and abusive father, Arnold (a sad and oddly sweet performance by Marc Stith), met his comeuppance. Now incapacitated by a stroke, barely capable of speech, he’s been dressed by Paige in a pink nightie and bubbly blue wig, and kept drugged with a cocktail of pharmaceuticals that Paige calls a “shaky-shake.”
Isaac’s sister, Maxine, is in the process of becoming Max with the aid of hormones that he — or, as Max prefers to be referred to, ze (and hir in the third person) — buys on the Internet. The house is a pigsty.
The play’s unreal, absurdist humor and willingness to take a joke to the extreme edge reminds me a little of Arthur Kopit’s Oh, Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad. Isaac (well played by Royce Roeswood) isn’t just a meth snorter; needled by Paige, he admits he blows the stuff up his ass with a straw, whereupon Paige grabs a straw and tries to figure out exactly — and quite graphically — how that can be done. But she differs from the monstrous mother in Kopit’s play because she has some reason for the things she does. Here’s how she describes to Isaac Arnold’s fury at the way the world was changing: “He started to get a constant white saliva stuck to the corners of his mouth.... He lost his job to a Chinese-American woman.... Bereft of you and his customers to spray his red-faced spittle on, he doubled down on Max and me. Three times I had to take Max to the emergency room.” He also raped her. And beat the dog with a bat.
But Paige is happy now (and it’s a pleasure to see Martha Harmon Pardee in a role that exhibits her distinct and multiple strengths and talents). She’s entirely invested in Max’s adventure, exploring the spaces opened by Max’s transitioning and the way transgenderism is defined through language. Throwing off all semblance of convention, including a tidy house, she home-schools Max and arranges cultural expeditions. “What you think you know, you do not know,” she informs Isaac. “There are no longer two genders. No longer simply a Y and X chromosome, but an alphabet of genders.”
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Paige is exactly right: We’re not binary, and scientists are now acknowledging that there aren’t only two sexes. According to an article in Nature, “Doctors have long known that some people straddle the boundary — their sex chromosomes say one thing, but their gonads (ovaries or testes) or sexual anatomy say another.” Violent pre-stroke Arnold fit a prevalent image of manliness; resisting his mother’s invitation to join her and Max in their experiments, Marine Isaac tries to bring his damaged father back to himself.
Despite what we know of Arnold, we empathize as Isaac tidies up the house, cooks fried chicken for a family dinner that will never happen and strives desperately to re-create the thing he most needs: a home. Max, meanwhile, is intrigued by his brother’s manliness; teenager Cory Sapienza is a convincing and sometimes touching Max.
This summary suggests a thematic unity that author Mac (who, according to the program, likes to be referred to as judy) doesn’t supply. Instead, he tosses profound ideas into the script and then upends them. He hints at real emotions — Paige’s miseries as Arnold’s wife, Isaac’s obvious PTSD, Max’s search for identity — but never lets you identify much with any of the protagonists. The most vivid of them is Paige, who’s principled in her own hideous, lunatic way and does what she has to, no matter how cruel, to attain her vision of a manless world.
Intelligently directed by Josh Hartwell, Hir represents a daring step for Miners Alley, providing entry into a world that feels somewhat alien and hermetically sealed. It’s fascinating to observe for an evening, though you wouldn’t want to stay too long there.
Hir, presented by Miners Alley through March 5, 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden, 303-935-3044, minersalley.com.