Defunkt Theatre has cooked up a hot mess with its production of one of the most acclaimed Off Broadway works of 2015, Hir. The kitchen sink dramedy (which includes vomiting into the sink) is set in a decaying prefab house in a conservative West Coast suburb. A soldier returning from war confronts his changing home and family dynamic.
Despite the piles of dirty takeout containers, grime on dated appliances, and teenage-sized piles of laundry, magic is in the air. Described as New York’s darling, playwright Taylor Mac creates “radical faerie realness ritual.” Mac uses the pronoun judy, as in Garland. Before judy begins a project, judy writes down all the things judy doesn’t want to talk about and those become the play. Judy is known as a Queer-American-Artist-Historian-Shaman and much of judy’s dialogue is as much a mouthful. There’s an enviable unbridled creativity to judy: anthropology with a splash of anarchist emotional and intellectual intelligence. While Mac wasn’t at Defunkt during the performance, judy’s spirit filled the theater. Audience members shed their modesty and checked in with each other during intermission and after. Defunkt’s Hir sparked conversation and a sense of community. Mac was in New York performing A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, which New York Times critic Wesley Morris described as “one of the great experiences of my life.”
Director Andrew Klaus-Vineyard set up the play with more counterbalances to step away from what he described as “the situational comedy” approach two earlier productions carried. If you haven’t been part of the dialogue around gender the last few years, Hir is great edutainment. Paige McKinney is a Baby Boomer mom whose quest for liberation has turned self-absorbed and controlling. She’s made a poster child out of her transitioning daughter-to-son, Max. Max (Ruth Nardecchia) is a kid on the cusp of many things and has assumed the world on their (this, or “ze,” is the pronoun the play finds preferable) shoulders. Paige’s husband, Arnold, played by Anthony Green, is a former plumber who is now a housebound stroke survivor. Isaac (Jim Vadala) is their son, a lumbering vet who sweats testosterone with military order.
While the four characters share a room, they’re all lonely and have been estranged for a long time.
Adversity is depressing. Struggles often turn into more struggles. Defunkt isn’t so much about making the audience feel good as it’s about unearthing contemporary conflicts and making the audience feel something about them. Vadala’s Isaac has dark circles under his eyes, and in time, we discover why. His attempts at compassion set in motion a path to self-destruction. Mac’s clever script gives the actors moments that reflect a Mary Poppins perfection as delivered by a Greek chorus. Isaac and Paige stand and give a eulogy for the family unit, directed at Arnold; their words cascade like a modern strophe, a 21st century Meredith Willson reflecting on what could’ve been.
Anthony Green creates a stunning portrait of a man who’s trapped in the body of an infant, but has the history of an abuser. For most of Hir, he sports a polyester nightgown with giant strawberry print, reminiscent of my favorite childhood sleepwear in the late ’70s. Green’s Arnold struggles through motor control and language with a lifelike precision. Arnold’s wife describes him as a man furious over his waning privilege. The only intimate scene of Hir is between Arnold and Isaac. As Isaac tries to clean up the landfill of a home, he shares his childhood memories of his father: “You like your beer to the point where you can fight for it. You like your whisky to the point where you can’t fight.”
Paige McKinney’s mom, described as a Land-Trust Avon Lady, delivers the most challenging dialogue, which includes a tongue twister of the new alphabet of gender. McKinney’s mom isn’t just a manic woman on the verge of a breakdown; rather she’s one who is going to transform her collapse into a breakthrough. McKinney gives weight to the helicopter parenting she spins, and her perpetual anxiety lets the audience move beyond canned laughter: “Just because you have muscles doesn’t mean you can be tacky.”
Max is the professor of the house, teaching from the new school of hard knocks. They’ve dropped out of public education, because “academia is a Ponzi scheme.” Nardecchia’s Max is sweet, confused, lovable, acute, determined, and high on hormones, just as we expect teenagers to be.
Klaus-Vineyard and the cast have honored Mac’s play, but kicked it up a notch with their with great attention to making the characters’ internal conflicts seem real. Access is a theme around which much of Taylor Mac’s work revolves. Defunkt lets you in for a while to a version of Mac’s past, through a joy ride of the transformative power of play.
Hir continues through November 12 at Defunkt Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.