A matriarch takes charge, and then some, in Taylor Mac's "HIR" at Shakespeare & Company
LENOX — Taylor Mac's "HIR" opens in a starter house rife with transition. Isaac Connor returns home from war to find his once-threatening father, Arnold, donning clownish attire; his sibling, Max, transitioning to a different gender; and his mother, Paige, asserting her authority after years of enduring Arnold's abuse. This last transformation motivated director Alice Reagan to helm the Shakespeare & Company production of "HIR" that opens Saturday, after previews Thursday and Friday, and continues through Oct. 7 at Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre.
"I'm attracted to plays that have a strong, complicated female lead, and 'HIR' definitely has that even though it's very much an ensemble piece with only four characters," Reagan told The Eagle during a telephone interview. "Paige is the creator-destroyer at the heart of the story, and her journey through the play is — you can't not watch it."
Paige's agency arrives before the audience does; Arnold has had a stroke, allowing her to gain control over this lower-middle class household, land a job and support Max's gender transition, which involves internet orders of testosterone.
"I am now in charge, and it's like being baptized, only without the male-dominated hegemonic paradigm," Elizabeth Aspenlieder said of her character during a group interview with the cast. "It's a way for her to discover her femininity, discover who she is. She's on a journey herself. Just as Max is transitioning, Paige is as well."
Paige's power distinguishes Mac's work from dysfunctional family dramas that feature mighty patriarchs.
"It's a thrilling piece to be written around a matriarch like that," Reagan said. "[In] most family plays about white families in the past 50 years in this country, the patriarch is the character to contend with. And, in this one, it's Paige."
Her husband, Arnold (played by John Hadden), barely speaks, his health and status both diminished.
"It focuses on the decline of the empire and the way that the hyper-masculine personality is wreaking havoc not only in our society but all over the world," Hadden said of the play.
Mac introduces this notion early on. After Paige informs Isaac that she's "doing things" now, she adds, "It used to be you could be a mediocre straight white man and be guaranteed a certain amount of success. But now you actually have to improve yourself."
Isaac initially resists this change and others around the house, including Max's transition. For Isaac, who may or may not be experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, the home's continuity is vital. Adam Huff draws from that belief in his portrayal of the Marine.
"I think that's where the pride of the American working class actually does come from, [the] home and the unity of the family. So, in any way that that gets threatened or falls to the wayside, that's a huge shift for these people who live in more rural areas," said Huff, who grew up in rural Pennsylvania.
Paige tries to pull Isaac out of the past, filling him in on what he has missed while at war and educating him about, among other things, the pronouns Max prefers.
"You must use 'ze' instead of the pronouns 'he' or 'she,' and you must use the pronoun 'hir,' H-I-R, in place of the pronouns 'her' or 'him,'" Paige explains at one point.
The title of Mac's play (pronounced "here") is by no means a new pronoun, but it is for Isaac, who must work to understand his sibling's transition. Max (Jack Doyle) confides in Isaac that finding friends is tough.
"Max is confronted with the fact that I don't have community yet," Doyle said. "I have these abstract ideas of myself that I need to figure out what I'm going to be as an adult."
Doyle relates to and appreciates the role.
"As a trans actor, [it] gives me room to inhabit that space and an out-trans role without the narrative defaulting to the popular media representation of trans people focusing on health care and violence," Doyle said.
While the play explores gender and other weighty subject matter, it's also quite funny.
"You're laughing, it's entertaining, you can't believe what's happening, and then, all of a sudden, we have a really intimate connection or moment of sadness," Reagan said. "It's the pulling in and out that's really exciting to me."
Max's transition, for instance, isn't off-limits.
"MAAAAAAAAX COME IN HERE AND EXPLAIN YOUR AMBIGUITY TO YOUR BROTHER," Paige yells early on.
The comedy continues as Paige encourages Isaac to embrace an untraditional family dynamic, but the characters never become cartoons, encountering their own limitations poignantly.
"There is humor in it, but the beautiful thing about what [Reagan] has done is to keep it real," Aspenlieder said of the production.
Reagan has spoken with Mac — a renowned transgender playwright and performer whose "A 24-Decade History of Popular Music" was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2017, three years after "HIR" premiered — about the show. Mac stressed to Reagan that "even though the play is called absurd realism, that is not the guiding principle to the play," according to the director. Instead, the characters' relationships are at the fore. In this production, the absurdity resides in the kitchen-and-living-room visuals.
"The lights, the sounds, the costumes, the set design — there is an excess and an overwhelming aspect to all of those," Reagan said. "We've taken everything and turned it up a notch."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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