By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
When a military man returns home after a three year absence, he learns that his family unit has undergone radical changes in Taylor Mac’s “Hir.”
Isaac (Tad Cooley) might not expect hero’s welcome home after being dishonorably discharged for a drug violation, but he does not expect his family home to be completely upended. When he arrives, the formerly pristine home is in chaos, piles of clothes on the floor, dishes in the sink, nothing in the cupboards. It’s a pigsty, squalid and disgusting. However, it’s nothing compared to the changes his mother, father and sister have made.
Isaac’s father Arnold (Douglas Rees) is a lumbering Frankenstein monster with make-up, a clown wig and a house dress; a stroke made the violent dad a docile creature. Now that she’s no longer under his thumb, Isaac’s mother Paige (Helena Ruoti) has freed herself from the shackles of her unhappy marriage and jumped into the driver’s seat. And, to top it all off, Isaac’s sister Maxine is now Max (Liam Ezra Dickinson), transitioning from female-to-male.
Paige explains the alphabet soup of the LGBTQQIAAP community to Isaac who is struggling to make sense of all the bizarre changes his family has undergone. The eponymous title comes from the Trans community vocabulary, a combination of his and her. There is another word, ‘Ze’ that is morphed version of he and she that is bandied about in the play.
Isaac’s head spins at the profound developments. Suddenly his crystal meth addiction seems tame in comparison to the new family dynamic.
Sympathies for the characters in “Hir” shift constantly like tectonic plates in the San Andreas Fault line. Sometime you’re fully on Paige’s side – until you’re not. Sometimes Isaac seems like the most reasonable normal one – until he isn’t. You can love and hate all four at the same time, but you will never feel indifference. Their passions consume them and it’s easy to get swept up in the pandemonium.
The play is about gender fluidity, toxic masculinity, physical abuse, drug abuse and more. It’s remarkably funny and tragic at the same time. There’s a lot to absorb. The first act is funny, but a little preachy. The second act hits you like a punch in the face. Like Hawaii’s Kilauea, “Hir” bubbles beneath the surface until it explodes, producing fissures in multiple directions.
The play is perfectly cast and the performances are brilliant.
Ruoti is a firecracker. She embraces Paige with gusto. Every line reading is special. At one point, she tells Isaac that his father – after working thirty three years for the same plumbing company – lost his job to a Chinese-American woman she announces, “It was fantastic!” She’s slap-happy with schadenfreude.
Rees lumbers and shambles around the room like the Addams’ Family’s stoic butler, Lurch, on Quaaludes. Deep down, however, Arnold is a swirling miasma of brutality. It’s incredibly nuanced performance from an actor with so few lines of dialogue.
Isaac’s reactions are comical at first, but the character gets progressively darker. Cooley handles the role with aplomb.
Dickinson is Trans playing Trans. Not to overstate it, but it feels like a defining moment in the Pittsburgh theater scene, considering that, in larger American cities, Cisgender performers were cast as Max. It’s not just stunt casting, Dickinson is marvelous in the role.
Kudos to director and barebones founder Patrick Jordan for producing a subversive and funny play.
Special shout out to fight director Randy Kovitz for realistic and unnerving scenes of brutality.
“Hir” is disturbing in all the ways theater should be. You may love it or you may hate it, but it will move you. The play stays with you long after you leave the theater. It’s a winning production.
“Hir” runs until May 26 at the barebones black box theater, 1211 Braddock Avenue, Braddock, PA 15104. For more information, click here.