“Absurd realism” is the term used by playwright and celebrated performance artist Taylor Mac for his 2015 play Hir, now grabbing audiences at Bluebarn Theatre. The constant, unrelenting action speaks as loudly as the heated, high-volume words. However, the steady flow of ideas, messages, concepts beneath that surface provoke serious pondering outside in the cold night air re what Mac most wants to say.
Hir has been sometime described as a black comedy. Although much that happens and is said can look and feel absurd, hence funny in loony ways, director Susan Clement Toberer’s take appears to aim for realism. That would dovetail with Chekhov’s use of the word “comedy” about domestic dramas wherein bewildered people struggle to understand and take charge of their lives. Uh-huh. Yet, unlike Chekhov’s characters, Mac’s are not given to long, rambling discourse. These people haven’t the patience to ponder and ruminate.
Speaking of such internal inquiries, given that so many interesting ramifications lie beneath the surface, the best course is for you to make your own discoveries. Multi-paragraph descriptions here about what takes place would be more like reporting than reviewing.
However, some details. A nuclear family explodes. And, in the fallout, only young transgendering Max (the “hir” of the title) emerges as ultimately uncontaminated.
Isaac returns from the war, where his duties consisted of picking up body parts. Arriving home, he finds a radical transformation of the one he left three years before and tries to reassemble the pieces. His mother, Claire, wears the pants in the family, including some lying amid piles of every kind of generic clothing in scattered heaps all over the floor. She’s upended traditional home-making. She now dominates formerly abusive and extra-maritally-active husband Arnold, who, after a stroke, wears women’s clothes. Former tomcat Arnold sleeps in a cardboard box and is kept tame by being sprayed from a water bottle.
Such role reversals are further underscored by Isaac’s sister Maxine having chosen to become Max. Ze (like ‘hir,” a gender-neutral pronoun) is still exploring the boundaries of identity. And Paige, trying to be modern, supports such overturning of middle-class conventions.
Isaac tries to get Arnold to be more like a man, but hasn’t the strength to take control of the family and, despite doing what he can to create order, has his own weaknesses to contend with. However, he clearly bonds with Max, who seems to be a hope for the future in an ever-altering world.
When it comes to realism, though, the playwright hasn’t given Isaac much depth. Having been drug-addicted in the army, you’d think he would be often disoriented, rather than solely by the shock of his altered family. That could also be comic. As for absurdity, among other elements, Isaac throwing up looks like a heavy-handed running gag (sorry!) as if Mac tries to make that funny. That doesn’t work here.
The dialogue zaps contemporary conventions of many kinds. Which makes sense, given such exploration of family and gender roles, as if parodying now-nostalgic TV series about jolly families. Here Mac joins the lists, tilting a far-out extension of many plays about dysfunctional families— so many that mentioning them could seem interminable.
Clement Toberer keeps every out-of-control moment in clear control, making sure that, despite a potential for proliferating weirdness, it all comes across as real. And Martin Scott Marchitto’s set serves the purpose well, full of things which actually function—appliances, props, furniture.
As Max, 21-year old Nickolas Butt shines with truth, intelligence and naturalness in his Omaha stage debut. In an indelible presence, Brent Spencer makes almost speechless Arnold so disturbingly and genuinely sad, that you’d want to forgive the man, were you able. Paige is personified by Kim Jubenville. She successfully interprets the role with some dotty innocence under the nastiness, making her quite human, no Clytemnestra. Plus Omaha’s Joe Mendick looks and sounds completely right as Isaac, a sympathetic portrayal.
Unfortunately, the Bluebarn program book, as is often the case, fails to give background information about the creator of the material offered. Certainly, Mac has become a major anti-conformity figure in the performing arts world. He claims to be influenced by Charles Ludlam’s “Theatre of the Ridiculous” and other theatre as far back as classical Greek works. His own have been performed at Lincoln Center, New York’s Public Theater, American Repertory Theatre, the Spoleto Festival and more. They include Peace, co-written with Rachel Chavkin, an adaptation of the Aristophanes play of that name; The Lily's Revenge, inspired by tradition and nostalgia versus discrimination and anti-gay marriage agenda; The Walk Across America for Mother Earth—modern-day commedia dell'arte concerning anarchists protesting nuclear proliferation and his four-part Dionysia Festival. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taylor_Mac.
The question of who or what Max is clearly dovetails with Mac’s own persona, (n.b., Max and Mac.) Often calling hirself “judy,” Taylor says ze is “genderqueer…I’m a little bit of everything.” You could learn more in this online interview: http://www.americantheatre.org/2014/11/26/taylor-macs-hir-just-your-average-kitchen-sink-genderqueer-family-drama/
As the world turns, Hir is here and now.
HIR runs through Feb 26 at Bluebarn Theatre, 1106 South 10th St. Thurs.-Sat.: 7:30 p.m., Sun. Feb.12, 19, 26: 6 p.m. Tickets: $25-$30. www.bluebarn.org