Right “Hir,” right now

The Unicorn Theatre wraps up its season with a rousing production of Taylor Mac’s gender-bending, genre-busting dysfunctional-family drama.

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Isaac Connor has just returned from a three-year tour with the Marine Corps’ Mortuary Affairs unit, but apparently collecting exploded viscera in a war zone wasn’t enough to prepare him for the devastation he finds at home. Piled furniture blocks the door, clothes litter the floor, blankets cover the walls; nothing appears to have been cleaned in months. His mother, Paige, greets him cheerily in a mismatched ensemble of bandana-print pants and colorful, sparkly barrettes. But most troubling is the form of his father, Arnold, squeezed into a ladies’ nightgown and plastered in clown makeup, slumping against a battered cardboard box.

It is immediately evident that Hir—Taylor Mac’s highly acclaimed, very dark, and very comic entertainment making a dynamic Kansas City debut on the Unicorn Theatre’s Jerome Stage—aims to disgorge any preconceptions of the kitchen-sink drama. On cue, Isaac promptly turns and vomits into the kitchen sink.

All this before he and we have even met the title character: his teenage sister, Max, who is transitioning into a not-quite brother. As Paige explains, Max, being neither him nor her, prefers the personal pronoun hir (pronounced “here”). When Max enters, sporting a “wife-beater” tank top and the early scruff of a beard, Isaac makes another run for the kitchen sink.

Mac’s whirlwind of a tale—“absurd realism,” as he has called it, presenting “realistic characters in a realistic circumstance that is so extreme it is absurd”—nimbly and delightfully pushes so many hot buttons of the day, from transgender identity to the fraying of male hegemony to the struggles of the white working class to domestic abuse to endless foreign wars to post-traumatic stress to drug addiction to… Let’s just say, tackling all this at once, the Connor family isn’t simply in transition; it’s in the midst, as Paige sing-shouts gleefully, of a “paradigm shift!”

We learn that Arnold was a sadistic and violent husband and father until, shortly after losing his job as a plumber—“to a Chinese-American woman!”—a stroke rendered him the compliant, slightly animate object we now see; in the year since, Paige has been dressing him up as she pleases, spritzing him with her holstered squirt bottle whenever he disobeys, and blending his prescription medications with a dose of estrogen to keep him more docile. Her liberation and subsequent rebellion against the patriarchy has lead her to join a non-profit with a questionable mission, pull Max out of public school, and generally reject anything once dictated by Arnold or normative social influence.

“We don’t do order,” she says, stating the completely obvious. (Scenic designer Gary Mosby’s set, cluttered with Eric Palmquist’s props, received its own ovation at the beginning of each act.)

Which is not to say there is no structure or strictures. Paige’s paradigm shift means there are new rules. She doggedly polices her children’s language—and, in its few hilarious and painful utterances, her husband’s—and ultimately, it appears she has rebuilt a household just as confining as the one they’ve escaped, only with different limits.

As wild as it seems, Mac’s brilliant text is a sure foundation for four excellent performances, guided by Ian R. Crawford, whose broad direction makes the most of the stage and each actor’s stage time. With his passionate incredulity, Sam Cordes’ Isaac may seem like the sane one at first, the audience’s anchor in this absurdly realistic storm, but Cordes’ gifts for manic comedy shine through as Isaac flails in his family’s new normal. With each flinching reaction, Phil Fiorini is phenomenal as the tormented and tamed monster Arnold—it’s hard to take your eyes away from him even when he is off mumbling in the corner. And Ahafia Jurkiewicz-Miles is a delight as alternately brooding and boastful “transmasculine” Max.

Yet the action—and all the subsequent reactions—are primarily driven by Carla Noack’s dominant comic and calamitous turn as Paige; she’s buoyant and brutal, charismatic but occasionally confounding, and, by her own underestimation, a “little batty.”

Indeed, each of these characters is capable of provoking both outrage and empathy, often bringing what we think and what we might feel into direct conflict. Watching the predatory Arnold reduced to a humiliated, mewling mass is something of a Me-Too revenge fantasy—but it doesn’t feel all that cleansing. The play dangles issues like nonbinary gender identity in such a way that both normalizes and skewers them. And if, by the end, you’re hoping for some kind of tidy resolution—tidy?—then you haven’t been paying attention.

It may all be too much, at least for one evening—and that’s okay. The playwright himself claims—as quoted in dramaturg Ethan Zogg’s illuminating program note—that “you don’t have to decide how you feel” about this or, really, any play you see. “You could actually go to it and say, ‘Oh, it’s talking about these issues,’” Mac explains. “‘Let me think about these issues for the rest of my life now.’”

And you just might.

REVIEW:
Unicorn Theatre
Hir
Runs through June 24
Jerome Stage
3828 Main St, Kansas City, MO
For tickets, visit unicorntheatre.org

Cover photo: Phil Fiorini, Sam Cordes, Carla Noack, and Ahafia Jurkiewicz-Miles