Hir — Image via mixedblood.com

Hir

Mixed Blood Theatre
Directed by Niegel Smith

What does individual self-discovery have to do with social progress? What happens to the people who are left behind by both, and should we care? These are the kinds of weighty questions playwright Taylor Mac addresses in an acerbically confrontational and deliriously absurd manner in Hir, currently playing at the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis in its second production after a 2014 San Francisco premiere.

Hir‘s action is set in motion by the return home of Isaac (Dustin Bronson), an ex-Marine who has spent three years recovering body parts from the battlefields of Afghanistan in the mortuary service. Isaac is surprised to find that a few things have changed back home. His father, Arnold (John Paul Gamoke), a former plumber, is now barely functional after a major stroke. His mother, Paige (Sally Wingert), has given up keeping house, gotten a job at a nonprofit, and started dressing up Arnold in a nightgown and ordering him around. And Isaac’s teenage sister, Maxine (Jay Eisenberg), is now the genderqueer, testosterone-shooting Max, who wishes to be referred to by the pronouns “ze” and “hir” instead of “she” and “her.”

Hir — Image via mixedblood.comNeedless to say, this is all a little confusing for Isaac, who has been longing to come home and sleep in his old bed in the small house on the outskirts of a small town where his masculine, dominant father; housewifely mother; and tomboyish sister have presumably been waiting eagerly for him. Instead he is greeted by virtually nothing familiar or comforting, largely because his mother, enamored of everything that her old life was not, is now committed to discarding anything that smacks of outmoded ways of thinking or being.

Paige and Max are now ostensibly running the show, but over the course of the play, some distinctions between them come to light. Max is 17, and like any 17-year-old ze is still trying on different identities and ideologies to see what fits. Paige, on the other hand, has become a zealot, determined to immediately reify every new truth she discovers — mostly via Max — about gender, oppression, and the mechanisms of social change. These differences particularly come through in how they react to Isaac’s return. While Max certainly feels the need to educate and in some cases confront hir brother, ze is also open to negotiating new ways of relating to him, whereas Paige merely lays down the new law and expects him to comply.

We also see a parallel dichotomy between Arnold and Isaac. As the other characters gradually reveal, before his stroke, Arnold was an abusive coward who took out his frustrations on his wife and children through belittlement and physical violence. Now, shorn of his ability to lash out, he has been rendered superfluous. As for Isaac, he certainly has a fair bit of Arnold in him; he lets his machismo stand in the way of coming to terms with the trauma he has experienced in Afghanistan, and his instincts are to impose order on his parents’ household by any means necessary. But he also seems more open, at least to Max, and more capable of empathy than his father apparently was. Maybe, just maybe, he will be able to adapt.

Hir — Image via mixedblood.comUltimately, Hir leaves us unsure of whether the younger generation will be able to connect in a way that the older generation never could. Meanwhile, Mixed Blood’s four actors do an excellent job of conveying each character’s nuances. Entrusted with most of the play’s preachiest lines, Wingert delivers them with maniacal glee, reveling amidst the detritus of exploded masculinity while saving space to occasionally reveal the pain of Paige’s past. Bronson plays Isaac as someone who is genuinely trying to grapple with what is being presented to him but still tempted to just control what he cannot understand. Eisenberg touchingly conveys Max’s efforts to navigate a novel identity while constantly under pressure from hir mother to serve as the vanguard of “the new.” And Gamoke’s turn as Arnold, while mostly grotesquely comic, occasionally turns tragic; one cannot help but feel sorry for him despite not really wanting to.

For a play with this much agitprop potential, Hir is actually fairly generous in its treatment of different perspectives and even-handed in its skewering of narrow-minded worldviews; only a couple jabs at creationism and Todd Akin seem more focused on pleasing the sensibilities of the average Huffington Post reader than elucidating something about the characters or story. If the play is on anyone’s side, it would be that of Max, who, though clearly wanting to break free from the constraints of conventionality, has not yet developed a fixed point of view on the world. While the first act’s long exposition could use some tightening up, overall Hir is a rewarding experience and worth checking out before Mixed Blood’s production closes Mar. 22.

Photos by Rich Ryan

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.