Hir's lookin' at you, kid

Pi brings Taylor Mac tragifarce to Annex  for Canada premiere

Mistress of all ze surveys. Photo Tim Matheson

Ever watch one of those reverse explosion videos? You know, the ones
where a field of rubble abruptly leaps into the air and, amidst clamor
and flame, recombobulates into some placidly prosaic architecture. Not
hard to see why these grainy vignettes go viral on the Web: they offer
a fleeting, if illusory, respite from the tragic juggernaut of
entropy.

Taylor Mac’s two act tragifarce Hir unfolds just such a tableau.
Filing into the intimate black box Annex for the play’s Canadian
premiere, we’re immediately plunged into the anarchy of a ticky-tacky
starter home that's gone to seed.

It looks like Value Village after a tsunami. Dirty laundry piles up in
drifts all over the floor. A berm of overturned furniture barricades
the front door. The kitchen counter is piled high with dishes,
comatose appliances and food scraps.

Menopausal matriarch Paige (Deb Williams) keeps jettisoning fresh
bilge into these billows of scuzz. Most prominent flotsam in the whole
squalid vortex is her husband, Arnold (Andrew Wheeler) – or what’s
left of him after a stroke has strangled his speech and reduced him to
a diapered, drop-footed, cringing hemiplegic.

That represents an upgrade, as far as Paige is concerned, from the
wife-beating, rage-sputtering lout that fathered her two offspring. To
celebrate her liberation from him, she daubs helpless Arnold with clown
make-up, keeps him togged in a frilly housedress, plies him with
estrogen-laced smoothies and douses him with a dog-training spritz
bottle whenever he ventures near the door.

Now that Daddy can no longer wield his baseball bat bludgeon, their
erstwhile daughter, teenaged Max (Jordan Fowlie), has seized the
chance to gender-transition into a fuzz-faced young stripling. Ze’s
fluent in the jargon of Queer Theory, especially the “unthemed
pronouns.”  Ze can be very particular about how you address hir.

No wonder Isaac (Victor Dolhai), the family’s prodigal eldest son,
throws up as soon as he enters the house after his dishonorable
discharge from the Middle East frontlines of America’s Forever War.
Not that he’d been exactly homesick for the patriarchal hell-hole he
fled three years ago. To escape it, he enlisted in the U.S. Army’s
Mortuary Service – a permanent, rolling, battle-tested vomitorium.

But don’t take his puking personally, he urges his family. And don’t
mistake it for PTSD. It’s just his conditioned reflex by now, an
autonomous reaction to drastic change (such as his now unrecognizable
childhood home). In the Mortuary Service, throwing up is almost a
badge of honor – “it’s what we got instead of medals.”

Still, three years of scraping together the remnants of blown-apart
people have instilled in him a certain tidying-up instinct. Paige may
revel in the chaos of her liberation from cowed housewifery, but
Isaac’s firmly in the anti-entropic camp – hence the reverse
explosion.

So as soon as Mom and Max drive off for their museum-hopping “Culture
Saturday,” Isaac tackles the fetor with military zeal. By the time the
audience comes back from intermission, the floor and counter are
clear, the furniture is all standing in place, the fresh-washed
laundry is folded into neat piles and Arnold, in plaid flannels, is
propped in his customary Lay-Z-Boy goggling at a Yankees game.

(If you stay in your seat through the 20-minute entr’acte, you can
watch apprentice stage manager Sammie Hatch, like a black-clad Ninja,
accomplish this whole transformation with a truly balletic economy of
motion).

The return of the Saturday culturati, of course, ignites the
inevitable reverse-reverse explosion. It’s a blast so powerful as to
blow Isaac right out the door forever to join the ranks of homeless
tweaker military Vets encamped on the town’s tawdry Main Street.

Paige, wrapped in the dignity of unappeasable grievance, sulks off to
her corner as Arnold pisses himself. In loveless pity, Max – a baffled
teen, after all, for all hir sass – is left to swab down hir diapered
Dad.

Playwright Mac – a Pulitzer-nominated, MacArthur-certified Genius – is
the artistic apotheosis of a drag queen. Needling and shocking us with
the therapeutic precision of a skilled acupuncturist, Mac is all about
ambiguities and transitions.

Hir transitions, in its two-hour course, from the slapstick physical
comedy and witty trash talk of its early scenes through essayistic
eloquence and caustic cruelty, ending on a note of bleak pathos. It’s
a delicate exercise that director Richard Wolfe, guiding magus of Pi
Theatre, brings off with aplomb.

His design crew – costumes by Carmen Alatorre, set by Patrick Rizzotti,
props by Stella Garciano – coordinate seamlessly for a production so
reliant on its physical layout. Composer Mishelle Cuttler manages to
gin up tension with cues as subtle as the on/off white noise of an air
conditioner, while lighting designer Alan Brodie turns the mere
flicker of a TV screen into ominous portent.

But it’s the actors that bring it all to vivid life. There’s no “star”
in Hir – the play refracts around each character in turn. Williams’
Paige is incandescent in her wholly righteous rage. Her caustic
critiques likely echo the left/liberal instincts of many theatre
goers, but her flippant cruelty is nauseating.

So Dolhai, as Isaac, retches on our behalf. In his wide-eyed
incredulity, he’s as close as we get to an onstage proxy, while still
leaving us more than a little queasy at his snappy soldiery. Wheeler,
an eloquent Shakespearean interpreter of over 40-years standing, turns
in a tour de force in the virtually speechless role of Arnold as the
inert centre around which all the action revolves.

After a pan-Canada casting call for a transgender actor to play Max,
Wolfe found a perfect match in Fowlie. Practically a teen hirself, ze
projects just the right mix of bravura, vulnerability, narcissism and
empathy – a hormonal tempest in an exquisitely fragile teapot.

Don’t fail to see hir – and Hir – during its remaining one-week run
at the Annex through December 8th

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