By Jean Lowerison | Theater Review
Cygnet Theatre shreds theater tropes
There’s something to be said — especially in this time of major upheaval — for breaking down old and decrepit traditions, whether they be political, artistic or theatrical.
We’ve had plenty of examples of political breakdowns in the past few years. The artist Banksy recently followed the trend by putting out for auction a self-destructing piece of his art.
And now Cygnet Theatre brings us Taylor Mac’s peculiar piece “HIR,” which shreds all the rules and tropes of theater on the way to … I’m not sure what. But maybe that’s the point.
Mac, perhaps best known as a performance artist, was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for his “24-Decade History of Popular Music,” a 24-hour performance that dedicates an hour each to the music of the years 1776–2016.
Now he (or, as he refers to himself, “Judy”) presents “HIR” (pronounced “here”), in which Marine Isaac (Dylan Seaton) returns home from duty in Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to find something that looks nothing like the home he left.
The place is filthy, there are clothes all over the floor and the front door is blocked. His dad Arnold — a former plumber who is now mostly monosyllabic and in need of care after suffering a stroke — sits in a chair in a bright red fright wig, hideous clown-like makeup, and a bright pink woman’s dressing gown.
Isaac’s 17-year-old sister is now transgender, calls herself Max, and wants to be referred to as “ze” or “hir.” Ze aspires to emancipate and move to a “radical fairy commune.”
Isaac’s mother Paige (DeAnna Driscoll, who is brilliant as always) presides over this menagerie with casual — when it’s not intentional — cruelty, responding to Isaac’s horrified comment “This is a fire hazard” with “Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” Paige also asserts that “we don’t do laundry anymore” and the reason everything is out of place is that “we don’t do places anymore.” She uses a water spritzer to keep Arnold under control.
What is poor Isaac to make of this? What, for that matter, is the audience?
Paige feeds Arnold blended shakes, tossing in a menu of drugs including estrogen to “keep him docile.” Unfortunately, the noise of that blender is one of the things that sets off Isaac’s PTSD, so he spends a monumental amount of time running to the kitchen sink to puke.
I suppose “HIR” could be seen as either a reaction to or a natural literary movement to follow the “kitchen sink realism” of the 1950s and 1960s. Or perhaps as something more akin to theater of the absurd.
This quartet of actors — three of whom were previously unknown to me — make the best of this strange piece. Yet the show really belongs to local favorite Driscoll, whose Paige runs the show like a ringmaster at the circus. Driscoll does everything extremely well but specializes in this type of headstrong character. (She’s remembered fondly for her award-winning performance in “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the Moon Marigolds” a year ago.)
Castellaw’s Arnold inspires the most empathy, tortured by his wife and pretty much ignored by Max, who just wants to get out of that house.
Avi Roque’s Max, in turn, is also a captive, but at least there’s hope “ze” will escape.
Seaton’s Isaac represents the world we know, but he too has been damaged by life and now must find his way.
Sean Fanning must have had a field day with that messy set. Shirley Pierson’s costumes fit right in. Sound and lighting are well handled by Mason Pilevsky and R. Craig Wolf, respectively.
Rob Lutfy directs this difficult-to-categorize production with a straight-up approach that dares the audience to respond. I am simply puzzled by a piece that tries this hard to shock me. The opening night audience laughed at a lot at lines that didn’t strike me as a bit funny, and I spent a lot of time asking myself “Why?”
Adventurous theatergoers who want to try something different — and that’s a gross understatement — might want to give “HIR” a whirl.
—Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.