A VETERAN RETURNS from war having seen unspeakable things and harboring deep psychological wounds. He has trouble finding his place in society again. A familiar plot? Yes, but at Defunkt Theatre, Taylor Mac’s hero-comes-home family drama Hir is a droll and intelligent subversion of the genre, a romp through queer theory and problematic masculinity.
Isaac (Jim Vadala), the young vet, spent three years serving in mortuary affairs, picking up body parts on the battlefield. He is afflicted with PTSD which manifests in frequent vomiting brought on by stress, cognitive dissonance, or the sound of his mother’s blender—all plentiful in the flimsy suburban starter house where he grew up. He comes home to piles of trash blocking the front door, and his father wearing clown makeup and a gown. Things get stranger as Isaac reacquaints himself with his mother, Paige (Paige McKinney). Once a victim of her husband’s abuse, she’s now a manic, zealous progressive, gleefully determined to homeschool her youngest child, Isaac’s sister Max, and punish her husband (with the clown makeup and gown). Max (Ruth Nardecchia) now identifies as transmasculine and genderqueer, and prefers the gender-neutral pronouns “ze” and “hir.” And if you say the wrong thing, ze will blog about you, Paige warns. Isaac vomits.
Shifting away from the masculine center is part of the play’s project, and it would be easy to overlook the way this is deftly achieved, not only through the trenchant dialogue—always informative, by turns hilarious and poignant—but also in superb performances by the ensemble cast, directed by Andrew Klaus-Vineyard. Anthony Green, who plays the stroke-addled father always lurking at the edge of the action, creates a broken character that you want onstage; despite the drooling, limping, and despicable way he has behaved, he’s as complicated as the masculinity he represents. Casting Ruth Nardecchia in the role of Max is a welcome reprieve from the tendency for cisgender people to be cast as transgender characters, and her performance as the precocious Max, who is increasingly the family’s only hope, is compelling.
I worried a play about a vomiting man would be hard to watch, but happily discovered this work finds more interesting ways to be edgy. In one of Hir’s first productions in this country, Defunkt Theatre has shown an outstanding capacity to make theater that’s challenging, but takes care of its audience, too.