Theatre Review: BSTC's "Hir" is strangely unaffecting
Taylor Mac's Hir has a lot on its mind. It’s a shrill, almost unceasing eruption of confusion and rage the moment young Isaac (Will O'Mahony), traumatised by his job of collecting bloody body parts in Afghanistan war zones, returns to a home in complete disarray. He’s shocked to find his formerly strong-willed and abusive father Arnold (Igor Sas) as a drooling, drugged out mess with makeup thickly smeared on his face; his younger sister Max (Jack Palit) is now his younger brother; and his mother Paige (Toni Scanlan) is practically dancing in the ruins of a house that looks like it was hit by several natural disasters.
Though Isaac protests at the terrible state of their home, Paige refuses to cede control back to a patriarchal figure. And so ensues a struggle for dominance of The Home. It’s between uptight lily-white military boy and middle-aged woman who’s all too delighted to discover that the gamut of human sexuality and identity can be alphabetised (LGBQTIAPQ). Caught in the middle is transgender teenager Max, the titular “hir” – a combination of him and her. Mother sees in hir a better future, brother is befuddled by hir, and, amusingly, all hir wants is to get laid and learn to play a musical instrument competently.
Hir’s tone aims for darkly comedic but falls well short and lands squarely in bleak. There was a nasty streak of sadism right from the start that kept me at arm’s length. It wasn't that it was unpleasant to watch a castrated drooling moron grotesquely paraded about and treated like a show dog, it was unpleasant for that to be tonally presented as the bit where we it's permissible to point and laugh at this fallen paragon of toxic masculinity (he’s a rapist, a wife beater, a racist, an improbably-full-of-anger-at all-times madman who briefly emerges from his fugue state to declare, “My penis is my best friend”. A strawman to hate instead of a character, in other words). Is it some kind of backward achievement that this play made me feel deep sympathy for an abusive grumpy old fucker?
Maybe the point was that the bullied eventually become the bullies. We're all assholes, I guess? Uh...what was the intent, exactly, aside from illustrating a “we’re all assholes” nihilism?
It’s a small thing, yet emblematic of a larger problem I had with Hir: Arnold is broken and pathetic, Paige is broken and pathetic, Isaac is broken and pathetic, and that's all there is to it, so chew on that, you suckers. There's a self-loathing to the whole thing that does it no favours: fuck him for his abuse, him for whining about a world that's left him behind, her for perpetuating the abuse, hir for wanting the whole world to be a "safe space" -- fuck everybody. Spoiler alert, it ends with a mother coldly suggesting to her obviously shell-shocked and disturbed son that he commit suicide. Like most things in Hir, it happens out of nowhere. It's unhinged and unmotivated. It’s bile masquerading as artful spectacle. The play occasionally stops the cruelly unfunny parade and puts on its big boy pants to speak at length about Important and Timely Themes: Society, Gender Fluidity, Order, Chaos, Abuse, Masculinity, Art. It's awkward at best, pretentious at worst.
(Images by Taylor Mac)
This might go some ways to explaining Hir’s lack of resonance. For all the heat of a screwed-up family screaming at one another for 90 minutes, the needle doesn’t move very much; there are some surprising reveals here and there that threaten to hold your interest, but little in the way of meaningful exchanges and growth. I couldn't tell you a damn thing about anybody's journey in Hir. A denial of catharsis is the point, as Hir is only about detailing an excruciating transition into an uncertain, hopefully better, future. Society is at a perilous tipping point, Hir dramatically intones. *Reads the news for three seconds* Well, you don't say?
It’s also difficult to be emotionally invested when the subtext is often just heavy-handed text spoken loudly and plainly, “We don’t do cupboards anymore. We don’t do order,” Paige explains – not to her son, but to an audience hanging on her every word, it seems. Several times it’s mentioned that the house is “built on a landfill”. Do you get it?
The absence of dramatic dynamism stands out all the more due to a lack visual variety, save for a thoroughly delightful and unexpected detour into “therapeutic puppetry” in which tragedy and comedy is marvellously melded. It’s nearly solely left to the actors to carry this piece, and they do so to the best of their abilities. They stuff as much nuance as they can fit into their shallow characters to keep Hir at least fitfully interesting, even though it often sounds like their pithy lines are written by someone overly concerned with coming off as clever. You can only hear so many declarative statements before it all blurs together to form one long monotonous whine.
In the final analysis, Hir is sad and odd -- and, yes, truthful -- but not entertaining or enlightening.