“Some people get parades or banners,” insists returning son and discharged marine, Issac Conor (Andy Cahoon). “I come home to this!”
In the new, darker than dark comedy from writer and performance artist Taylor Mac, HIR (pronounced ‘here’; it’s a combination of ‘his’ and ‘her’), presented by Stray Cat Theatre and performing at Tempe Center for the Arts until May 13, Issac has just spent three years working overseas with the military working in the Mortuary Affairs Department. His duties were essentially picking up the pieces of blown body parts. And now, after a dishonorable discharge for reasons that need to be revealed within the play (you’ll never guess why), he’s now returned to the family home somewhere in Central Valley, California. And it’s a mess. It’s a mess both literally and figuratively, and the ex-marine is having trouble processing the information.
The first clue that something’s not right can be seen before the play begins. Take your seat early and you’ll get the chance to study Jeff Thomson’s nicely detailed set consisting of both the kitchen area and the living room. It’s not just the unkempt, grubby marks around the door handles, the dirty dishes piled mile-high in the sink, the worn look of the green kitchen cabinets, the grungy looking a/c unit perched in the window, or even the empty plastic crates strewn about the place, it’s the discarded clothes in piles, several of them, scattered all over the place. “I don’t do laundry anymore,” states mom, (Cathy Dresbach). “We don’t do order.”
Isaac has left one war zone for another; one where he’ll once again try to pick up the pieces. But with the sight of his father (Gary David Keast) in ghastly clown-like makeup and a rainbow colored afro-wig sleeping in a lengthened cardboard box held together by duct tape, a sister (KJ Williams) in the process of changing genders and growing a beard while refusing to be categorized as either a he or a she, and a mother cheerfully on what seems like a campaign against conformity while continually encouraging her daughter to fight the good fight against gender classification, it’s not going to be easy.
“Here’s my theory,” mom confides in Issac. “We all come from fish.” You can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of what Issac is witnessing, and there’s a lot in Mac’s script to laugh at, particularity in the first half, but there’s always that nagging feeling from the beginning that something ugly is lurking beneath the surface of what appears to be forced and even, occasionally, annoying eccentricity. Once those truths begin to reveal themselves it’s hard to laugh, particularly in the second half, though audiences will.
There’s a history to dad and the way mom treats him, with a result that tears, then confuses the emotions and sympathies. At first, you can’t believe the callous manner with which mom behaves, coupled with her overall nuttiness. It’s not only the clown makeup she applies to dad, there’s so much more. She keeps the a/c high because it freezes him; she sprays him with a water bottle as if he’s an annoying insect on the wall when he utters something; and she does whatever else she can to gleefully torment and punish him.
But there’s a reason, and it turns out to be monstrous. Yet, even though your feelings towards mom and her appalling behavior towards dad softens somewhat once you learn of the depths of dad’s previous depravity before he suffered a stroke, mom’s vengeance, based on a need to continually humiliate and emasculate dad’s male sense of strength, is really just as horrifying. That softening of the sympathies towards her is only temporary, and that’s also the strength of this riveting Taylor Mac play: Keep laughing, despite the reveals of the second half, and the dysfunction might also be yours.
There are other strengths to the play, but they belong to this Ron May directed production; three good performances and an outstanding one. KJ Williams as gender-bender Max nicely conveys a sense of surface bluster and confidence, but every now and again that confidence is punctured, and from time to time, Williams successfully reveals a peek at the more vulnerable layer of Max’s personal doubt.
With Gary David Keast’s depiction of stroke-afflicted dad, you might think it’s easier for a performer to portray someone who is essentially out of it, with dialog that amounts to little more than well-timed utterances, but you’d be wrong. There are times in the second half when you catch a glimpse, albeit brief ones, of the angry, even dangerous man he once was, and it’s totally convincing. In fact, there’s a strange sense of relief when you see Keast as himself taking a bow at the end, knowing that, thank God, in reality he’s actually okay.
As disgraced marine, Andy Cahoon’s returning Issac skillfully combines both a sense of normalcy and his own level of weirdness. We see and learn everything as he does, and his outraged reaction to what his mother, father and sister says or does is our outrage. But Issac has his own issues. He’s developed a gag reflex that can be triggered by seemingly innocuous events, like the sound of the kitchen blender, causing him to throw-up at regular intervals in the kitchen sink, the one piled with the dirty dishes.
But the outstanding performance comes from Cathy Dresbach. From her valley resume, Dresbach knows a thing or two about subversive comedy, and here with her body language, her eye rolls, and her overall loony ebullience, Dresbach delivers, backed by years of learning how. What makes the performance great is that you believe in her. There’s truth in the madness, glimpsed when the muscles in Dresbach’s face drops to a humorless countenance in the more serious moments of revelation. It’s a showcase role, but there’s no showing off.
If you know anything about writer Taylor Mac then you’ll see where HIR is coming from. He was born in California. His father was a returning Vietnam War vet. His nonconformist mother encouraged him to embrace mistakes, and his work is often described as a fight against conformity and classification. As a performance artist he intentionally dresses in a colorfully incompatible manner with his gender, and, according to his personal profile on his website, he prefers to be called judy (all lowercase) as a gender pronoun.
Meet the Coopers. You would never want to know them, but meet them, all the same. It will be well worth your time.
Pictures courtesy of John Groseclose