The domestic heart of darkness

17 May 2018

Review: Black Swan State Theatre Company, Hir by Taylor Mac ·
Studio Underground, Perth, 12 May ·
Review by Jonathan W. Marshall ·

Hir is a bleak hothouse melodrama by Taylor Mac that charts the final meltdown of an already barely functional American family unit. Paige (Toni Scanlan), the mother, embraces a newfound radical freedom, enthusiastically throwing herself into promoting gender-fuck concepts in her life and home-schooling her onetime daughter, the now trans-identified Max (Jack Palit).

Paige’s freedom has arisen because of a stroke suffered by her formerly abusive husband Arnold (Igor Sas). Paige wreaks vengeance upon him by transforming him into an absurdly made up clown-servant in a dress, whom she sprays with water when his now slurred, barely sensible speech or actions run counter to her wishes. Sas’s facial spasms and dragging, semi-paralysed limbs make Arnold a figure one wants desperately to forgive, even as Paige forces us to reconsider this.

Paige and Max are now living in a world of chaotically managed freedom, with dirty clothes and rubbish stacked so high the front door will not open. Tyler Hill’s design of papered over dirty walls, cheap linoleum flooring, and a cut away roof whose central beam juts outwards like a thorn onto which the characters will eventually be skewered, is particularly effective.

Hir by Taylor Mac
Tyler Hill’s design is particularly effective. Pictured: Will O’Mahony as Isaac, Igor Sas as Max and Toni Scanlan as Paige. Photo: Daniel James Grant.

Into this radically changed scenario comes Paige’s son Isaac (Will O’Mahony), a traumatised and dishonourably discharged Afghanistan war veteran who just wants everything to be as he left it—but with less violence and more compassion from his father.

Observing Paige, Mac remarks, “rarely are women onstage allowed to be so contradictory”. One is tempted to describe Toni Scanlan’s performance as a tour de force, though this might suggest Paige is a whirlwind of energy and power. Scanlan’s characterisation certainly includes an often-enthusiastic Paige flapping about to questionable effect as her cheerleading for a new post-gender world over-reaches her ability to properly describe it.

Nevertheless, the most remarkable thing about Scanlan’s Paige is her calm sense of surety, particularly in the devastating concluding scene. As her family implodes and both Isaac and Max elect to depart, she remains grounded and centred. Having passed out of her former life as an abused wife, she is not about to let go of her newfound identity, even if it means losing both her house and her children.

Mac states, “It’s important to me that the actor playing Max be someone who was a biological female and now identifies as transgender or gender-queer.” The production, therefore, marks the Black Swan premiere for Jack Palit, previously with St Martins Youth Theatre in Melbourne. As befits the character, Palit has a wavering, difficult to place voice, and his physicality is all angularity, accentuated by overalls, which emphasise the character’s beanstalk horizontality.

Palit’s Max comes across as young and awkward, hovering between self-conscious hesitancy and an emergent sense of confidence. His deliberately modest performance is not ideal in this slightly over-large venue, but the actor nevertheless nails the nature of the role. One can but hope this will be a break-out part for Australian trans performers and initiate future trans-blind casting.

Despite the overt gender-fuck concepts at play, Hir is conventional in that the central protagonist, around whom all of these events are centred, is a straight, white male. Rather than a celebration of gender fluidity or change, Hir is a particularly intriguing, up-dated form of American mom-critique. Since at least the immediate aftermath of World War II, US commentators have been obsessed with the potentially corrosive effects of populating the country with “mommy’s boys” and although Isaac struggles to recreate himself, in the end it is his inability to give up an idea of what mothers and homes should be that causes him to self-destruct.

In short, the play is extremely bleak. The future has been mortgaged, the occupants are drowning in their refuse past and present, there is no money and no credit, no ability to move beyond vengeance into compassion for those who have wronged you, while ties of family and love are inadequate to paper over the gaping holes in the wall.

Hir has been described as an allegory for the current state of the US after the housing debt crisis, and this is certainly part of its meaning. But Mac’s relentless focus on a family which, even in the face of apparent gender freedom, is revealed as totally irredeemable, suggests something darker—much like the sedimented landfill of garbage upon which the family’s pathetic dwelling crookedly rests.

Hir plays the Studio Underground at the State Theatre Centre of WA, until May 27. 

Pictured top: Toni Scanlan, Igor Sas, Jack Palit and Will O’Mahony in ‘Hir’. Photo: Daniel James Grant.

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Author —
Jonathan W. Marshall

Dr Jonathan W. Marshall is postgraduate coordinator at WAAPA, Edith Cowan University. Jonathan has written for RealTime Australia, Big Issue, The Age, Theatreview NZ, IN Press, and presented on radio, since 1992. He grew up beside the Yarra River, near a long metal slide, set into the side of a rocky slope.

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