Letter from Tim: Hir
Warning to all Taylor Mac fans: Taylor does not appear in this play. Second warning: when the lights come up and the play begins to unfold before you, by all appearances it is as if we are witnessing a classically structured, fourth wall, living room family play. It even has a couch! For the uninitiated, my tongue-in-cheek warnings flag the fact that, heretofore, Taylor’s body of work usually features Taylor in stunning, elaborately conceived drag in spectacularly freewheeling, theatrical extravaganzas. In equal parts surreal, camp, ritual, burlesque, agit-prop, kabuki, and musical, there has always been something gloriously and gleefully subversive in Taylor’s gaudy other-sex pageantry. So the shift into realism takes a moment to process. But it doesn’t take long to appreciate that Hir does not feel constrained by its form. It is as inventive, transformational, and theatrical as any Taylor Mac show, while still working fully on its own terms. The grimy realism of the play vividly foregrounds the wide-angle socioeconomic issues Taylor’s Playwright’s Perspective discusses. It also sharpens the pathos of the returning war vet aspect of the story. But the play does not sit in its realism. In the introductory stage directions to the play, Taylor describes the sought-for stylistic pitch of the acting and design as “absurdist realism.” Taylor writes in elements of exaggeration and repetition that heighten the tone technically, but the primary generation of the play’s blithe absurdity flows from its merrily indomitable mother, Paige.
Larger-than-life mother figures make frequent appearances in the annals of contemporary American gay theater. A stroll through the oeuvre of Christopher Durang, Albert Innaurato, Harry Kondoleon, and Nicky Silver yields many such examples. And in the subcategory of mothers and gay sons, it is not uncommon to find the relationship symbiotically intertwined and unhealthful; think of Mrs. Venable and Sebastian in Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly, Last Summer, or more recently Phyllis and Bishop in Silver’s Fat Men in Skirts. But in many respects, Hir’s Paige is every gay son’s dream, even though that son was born as a daughter. She has championed Max’s decision to transition genders from the beginning and now enforces hir choice of personal pronoun with an English teacher’s grammatical vigilance. She is as ferocious in her support as Williams’s and Silver’s creations are ferocious in their manipulation, but ultimately no less scary. The patriarchy has been overturned, but Paige’s matriarchy is no less tyrannical, albeit much funnier.
Maybe the world is changing after all.
When I first read Hir, I assumed Taylor would subvert the play’s realism in the same way Paige subverts the patriarchy. But something surprising happens at the end of the play. The rigidity of Paige’s post-heteronormative morality does not rule the day. The play bows to the formal potency of its classicism and engenders a moment of anagnoresis, recognition, in the character of the war vet son, Isaac, tellingly nicknamed “I.” There is something profoundly generous, personal, and brave about the way “I” surveys the battleground at play’s end. After a lifelong career in free-form performance that exalts beauty and artifice as an alternative to the falsity of reality, we feel Taylor embrace both the play’s form and perhaps also that dismal childhood in Stockton, California. Maybe the world is changing after all. Maybe we live in a world that does not just need Taylor Mac’s fabulousness. Maybe the world is ready for Taylor Mac’s forgiveness as well.