On Sunday evening, ‘Hir’ directed by Daniel Clarke played at Red Stitch Actors Theatre in St. Kilda East. There was a great turn out for the second night of the show, which sees a performance of Taylor Mac’s original play in association with Midsumma Festival. If one has no prior knowledge of Hir, which premiered in San Francisco in 2014, you are in for a rather confounding experience.
Described as absurd realism by Mac, Hir is a four-piece ensemble, providing the audience with a constant barrage of dialogue, beginning with Paige (Belinda McClory). Paige lives in a U.S town where she homeschools her child Max, a transgender seventeen-year-old. Max is transmasculine with the preferred pronoun ‘hir’, which serves as the play’s namesake. Max is portrayed by Harvey Zielinski, the 2018 recipient of Red Stitch’s graduate ensemble member position and transgender himself. Also apart of the family in Hir is Paige’s other child Isaac (Jordan Fraser — Trumble), a recently returned marine. Paige also cares for (a term used loosely) her husband Arnie (Ben Grant) who has recently suffered a stroke.
It should first be noted that the set design in this production of Hir is exceptional — a tiny kitchen bench is littered with bottles and plates, the floor covered in articles of clothing (and the stage curtain itself), while the walls are filled with fairy lights. The colour palette of the stage is defined by a spectacular assortment of rainbow. Set and costume designer Adrienne Chisholm has truly been invested in a visual world building.
Isaac (Jordan Fraser — Trumble) serves as the prodigal son, returning to the family home after years away in the military “[picking] up guts”. Having been dishonourably discharged, Isaac in his navy polo is dressed down in contrast to the colourful mess around him, so much so that his response is to scream — home has changed. To his horror, everything is in disarray. Isaac’s formerly macho father now wears clown makeup and is fed estrogen pills by his mother. The reason for this dramatic change? Paige speaks constantly of a “paradigm shift” — she has begun homeschooling Isaac’s younger sibling Max, who had left school after being bullied. Max is transgender and essentially unrecognisable to hir’s brother. Max and Paige lead Isaac and the audience through a tangled explanation of their quest to break down social hierarchies.
Hir has its enlightening moments — Paige, in explaining Max’s newfound identity to Isaac, uses the wall as a makeshift blackboard and outlines one version of the LGBTQIA acronym, as well as Max’s pronouns and their particular tenses. There are moments in the play which offer the audience a moment of both contemplation and humour when it comes to thinking about gender, or perhaps any concept or idea — “everyone is a little bit of everything”.
While it is clear that Paige, inspired by Max’s experience, has gone through something of a rebirth and a journey of constant relearning, she is also to the horror of Isaac, neglectful and resentful of Arnie. Arnie seems to reflect both Paige and Max’s personal pain and Isaac’s yearning for masculinity and order. It is the latter, especially that Paige is wishing to abolish — though it is difficult for the audience to understand if we are to pity Arnie for his current state or to loathe him for his past as an abusive husband and father.
Interestingly however this appears to be the point that Mac is making with Hir — there are a plethora of grey areas when it comes to these characters, gender and life itself. Indeed while the intellectual murmurings of Paige and Max are constantly thought-provoking, there is also some tongue in cheek jokes at their expense, which one imagines are self-reflexive (Mac is genderqueer and prefers the pronoun ‘judy’). Interestingly, a viewer may also note during the play that the audience will laugh all in different places — while this makes it hard to decipher how well jokes are landing, it does show the boldness of Taylor Mac.
I would recommend that anyone seeing the show who is unfamiliar with it or the genre of absurd realism (like myself) should be prepared. I have actually found my opinion of the show to shift a few times, having been unsure who is the target of the jokes — the “paradigm shifting”, post-gender world, or an archaic, heterogenous one? This may be the objective of Mac and director Daniel Clarke — to make one wonder just that and to appreciate the very messy nature of a family — and perhaps a society — which is currently in a spot between the two.
Nevertheless, each of the ensemble members does well to tackle a maximalist script and a very complex family dynamic. As Max, Harvey Zielinski quite perfectly hovers between confidence and uncertainty, helping the audience to understand the challenges of transitioning in adolescence. Belinda McCLory is a master of Mac’s dialogue, while Fraser — Tumble is fantastic at balancing between horrified and trying to understand, and he and Ben Grant are quite captivating as scene partners.
Hir is anything if not thought-provoking, visually enchanting and punctuated with a talented cast. Its style of absurd realism may not be for everyone, but it should be appreciated nonetheless.
This review was originally published for RMITV’s chief review publication In Review.