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Hir theatre review (Red Stitch, Melbourne)

America is doomed. While for some, that will be cause for celebration, in Red Stitch’s latest offering – for one very American family, slightly ahead of the curve – it means that doom is reason for, well, doom.

Hir is one of cult performance maker Taylor Mac’s four ‘Dionysia Festival’ plays and it premiered in New York City for Playwright Horizons in 2015. It’s a topical and conventional kitchen-sink, single-location play. Its focus is on a dysfunctional family and more broadly on (very) American social and political themes. The script shares the gritty English language canon and character- driven topical realism most famously seen in Sam Shepard’s True West (1980) and John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956).

On stage, it resembles a very long episode of what we might imagine will be the new series of ABC America’s Roseanne (replete with Dan back from the dead and the family now re-written as Trump voters). There’s a few absolutely killer lines in Hir and stellar performances but the combination of banality, desperation and cleverness in the piece are unable to pull it out of the depression it portrays.

In brief: son Isaac has this very morning returned home from the US Marines Mortuary Corps where he’s been picking up body parts at one of USA’s many dismembered corpse farms (Afghanistan). He finds there’s no welcome home banner waiting for him; he’s had to walk from the train station, passing the homeless army vets as he lugs his bag over his shoulder.

Not that your average Australian theatre patron, or perhaps American, is likely to have too much sympathy for someone wanting a banner for doing their job and/or for being in the military. 

Arnold, the patriarch of the family, is confined to the house and mostly to a recliner having suffered a severe stroke. He’s also made up as a clown with grease paint and a fright wig and he can really only speak in single syllable exclamations (not unlike these).

The house looks tacky and is a horrifying fire-warden’s-nightmare of a mess. The decor and state of Arnold are the doing of Paige, the house’s newly crowned matriach. Arnold’s acquired disabiity has resulted in a revolutionary shift of power and Paige is weilding it with as much fire as she previously suffered under Arnold.

Isaac is aghast at the transformation of the family home he left three years where we’re finally introduced to our titular character – Hir.

Hir, known as Max, was born female, raised as a girl and is now transitioning to a male via hormones purchased from the Dark Web (as well as to blonde by way of a bottle of bleach).

Max’s preferred pronouns are ‘Hir’ to replace His/Her and ‘Ze’ to replaces He/She. Max and Paige are on parallel journeys of self-education on subjects that had hitherto been limited: gender, politics (courtesy of the internet), art (courtesy of trips to the city’s major art gallery), school (courtesy of no-one as Max is now homeschooled) and finance (courtesy of a reverse mortgage).

As Isaac throws up into the sink for the tenth, clearly PTSD related, time and his drug history is exposed, it becomes clear that no character has claim to truth, piousness or even ‘functionality’. The doom is in.

The intimate Red Stitch theatre and its steep rake creates an immediate and unconcealable focus on the performances. Despite the summer heat winning the battle against Red Stitch’s air conditioners, the performers are phenomenal.

Jordan Fraser-Trumble as Isaac is rock solid in his portrayal of deviance and normality. He provides some excellent moments, such as his desperate second act attempt to keep the house in order as he regressed into rote, military behaviour. With seemingly very little to do, Ben Grant’s Arnold is at times terrifying and deeply pathetic as the fallen villain.

Harvey Zielinski spunky, naive and narcissistic Max is both adorable and relatable. His is a committed opening engagement as a Red Stitch’s debutante embracing the awkward physical exploration and conflict of a young person growing up to the complicated bargaining and navigation of the interpersonal relationships.

Belinda McClory as Paige is a human tornado. Hers is an unstoppable and energetic performance and she seems best at finding the pace and humour required of the script – jerking us about from sympathy to horror and back again in the blink of an eye.

Adrienne Chisholm’s claustrophobic set expressed the clutter and squallor suggested by the text – I felt quite ill looking at it for most of the first act –  but unlike the accents and script (very much all American), I wasn’t quite sure how accurately the design transported me beyond the western suburbs of Melbourne.

The play itself seems a good deal longer than the material provides reason for. The second act is mostly a collection of vignettes, with a rushed climax and brief and insubstantial denoument. I’d have liked to have heard more from Paige, or seen further action play out. Mac’s dialogue labours at times, and the play for all its politics – some prescient, some voguish – could not be described as ‘new’.  It’s a work of undeniably contemporary ideas, but has neither the formal innovation of the British in-yer-face movement of the 1990s-2000s, and no more depth in its dramatic content than works decades older.

I was left wishing more for the brutality and spectacle of Red Stitch’s exceptional broad brush burlesque in Marcelle Schmitz’ Fat Boy (2010), or the cutting literary mutations of any of Will Eno’s plays. Mac is best known for larger than life creations, caricature and the absurd. This push towards the real has been faithfully delivered by director Daniel Clarke and his design team, including the subtle but effective amplifications of sound designer Ian Moorhead. Despite my reservations apropos the limitations of the play, I look forward to Hir again as part of the tetralogy, once all four parts are presented.

Hir is at Red Stitch until March 4. (Photo by Teresa Noble).

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