Episode 6 - Hir

 

Wesley: Hi, I’m Wesley.

Robyne: And I’m Robyne.

Wesley: And this is Obstructed View.

Robyne: Today we’ll be discussing Hir at Playwright’s Horizons, written by Taylor Mac, and directed by Niegel Smith.

Wesley: Hir follows Isaac, a dishonorably discharged soldier coming home from the war, to discover that his father had suffered a debilitating stroke, and that his mother, Paige, took over the household turning everything he knew upside down.

Robyne: The design team for Hir was, scenic design, David Zinn, costume design by Gabriel Berry, lighting design by Mike Inwood, and sound design by Fitz Patton.

Wesley: The play setting is in contemporary lower middle class America and the design team really reached for a sort of hyper realistic presentation of this world.

Robyne: The attention to detail in this design was exquisite. The designers all worked together to create this very detailed hyper realistic world. The sound design was sparse. I can only really recall two cues: It was the sound of crickets in act II, and the sound of a car driving away in act I, and that was all that was needed. The silence that filled the room when silence was called for was great. Everything else was practical sound.

Wesley: What Fitz Patton’s sound design was able to do for me in those rare moments they used sound design, it gave this great sense of this expansive world outside this home we know. It was a vague, not so much foreboding, as it was expansive world of the unknown outside this home. She goes out in the car and you’re left to your imagination what this city looks like. It kind of makes this “everywhere America” kind of feel to it.

Robyne: And in conjunction with Mike Inwood’s lighting design, which was discrete and subtle, this world became so defined. The restraint on the part of the designers really created this wonderfully realistic world.

Wesley: Something that I initially disliked, which grew to be one of my favorite parts of the piece was this photo-realism, and the subtlety and the refinement with which these designers, including lighting designer Mike Inwood’s work, where it was so small in detail, and in presentation that these people were then grounded as people in a real setting, in a real social structure, and with real personalities and histories.

Robyne: From the moment that the curtain went up David Zinn’s set and Gabriel Berry’s costume designs just- you immediately knew who these people were and where we were, within two seconds. Even the slightly absurd opening of this production, you got a very clear sense: who was in control, what the living situation was, what the financial situation was of this family. And, it was gorgeous, it was claustrophobic almost, how trapped the designers made us feel in that moment, in the chaos of the set dressings on this wonderfully detailed set by David Zinn.

Wesley: Yeah, so David Zinn’s set, when the curtain opened, it really had this feeling of one of those “Eye Spy” books I had when I was little. Everything was everywhere. Nothing but color. Nothing but handmade mess happening, and the costume design by Gabriel Berry, they were both matched, the same level, which is not abstract mess, but concrete. These were people with a financial background, with an ability to create this sort of mess they have in front of them. This wasn’t generic mess. This wasn’t even high abstract mess. This was a concrete, people creating the world around them. And, as much as I thought those initial moments with Isaac coming into the home were manic and- I thought I was in trouble with the show- it really gave a good background to what this show was going to be about. Isaacs difficulty of getting into this world and his ultimate departure from it.

Robyne: The set dressings beautifully illustrated the chaos that was going on at home, beautifully demonstrated the intentional chaos that Paige had decided to exert on her home. Wesley: And there were a couple reveals in act II in the space, once the place gets cleaned up, once you start to see that this home is just a place where these people are able to project themselves, and their personalities, and their desires onto it. Even if it is, the father punching holes in the wall. And these sorts of moments became so grounded with this world being photorealistic.

Robyne: Overall I thought that the design for this piece was exquisite.

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It was a lot of high detail work, and designers getting out of the way, to allow a piece of this nature to happen.

Wesley: Right, as I said before there was something about it that I didn’t care for in act I, mostly because the writing style, and the nature of this world we were in felt more archetypal, it felt more abstract. But come act II, with the grounding of all these characters and their histories, and their lives, it became one of the most important things to make this production a success for me.

Robyne: Taylor Mac’s writing in this piece is, in my opinion, a little hit and miss. There are many instances of things being brought up, and immediately dropped. There are moments where reveals happen to no end. It was simply more information that was piled on and contrary, I feel, to the design which was very concrete and hyperrealistic and, as I said, claustrophobic, in a sense, the actual writing and concept of the play felt even slightly farcical, in an unintentional sense. The play occurs over fourteen hours, and we see the first and the last of those two hours. I feel there were a lot of logical fallacies in the reality they had created.

Wesley: Absolutely, so we are loaded with a lot of history in this family the second they start, but none of those are revealed very organically. There was a great deal of information we as audience members needed to get really quickly in this piece to understand the complexity of this family and what they’re going through. Often it came off with this sort of improvisational air to me. I think one of the reasons so much of the information is given so ham fistedly in the beginning is that there’s so much to get. We, like Isaac, are dropped in the middle of this insane world. So, Isaac had been dishonorably discharged for using drugs, and was sent back home. Not only had his father, Arnold, suffered this stroke, but his mother, Paige, is drugging him (Arnold) with estrogen pills in order to keep him docile and not only that but his sibling, Max, previously his sister is going through transition and is now going by the pronouns Hir and Ze. Which is something brand new to Isaac and which is where the piece gets its title from. His mother Paige is excited about all of these changes, and all this power she has in the household. Isaac does his best to regain some control in the family, and a great deal of this information is developed in this improvisational air of “here’s this new piece of information, we’ll play with it for thirty seconds, until the next piece of information”, just keeping it on rotation like that, rather than keeping it organically developing a conversation.

Robyne: For a world where there seems to be so much consequence for your actions, there seems to be very little consequence for your dialogue, in this world. And I found that very troublesome. The play felt like a divide between wanting to be this hyperrealistic kitchen drama where you see all these people as people, as separate individuals, interesting, quirky human beings. And on the other side, it felt like it wanted to be a very important philosophical conversation. Now to Taylor Mac’s credit the piece did not feel preachy in the least. There was a brief lesson on pronouns, that when looking around the audience I felt was really necessary, but was not exhaustive, and had a beautiful coda where Isaac, not knowing what to do with Max, simply stared and Max said “Hug me, just hug me.” And there was this gorgeous moment where they embraced and Isaac said something about how Max smelled different and Max said, “I know isn’t it cool?” And that was wonderful, and there was a number of these moments in the dialogue, most of them Paige’s, where you see the nonsensical, farcical airs she puts on break in these gorgeous moments of honesty. For instance, when Isaac goes to remove Arnold’s mumu, and clownish drag makeup, and Paige immediately snaps “We will not rewrite his history with pity.” Gorgeous. The underlying structure of the story is fascinating and gorgeous and the conflicts these characters go through are fascinating and it’s so fast. A lot of the reveals are so fast. The amount of time this play is supposed to happen is so fast. If this was a miniseries on HBO, if this was a new “Angels in America” for this generation. If this wasn’t a play, but the structure was longer and we were given more time for these reveals and to get to know these characters. A play is the wrong format for this story I think.

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The conversations around gender and trans community would be vastly different than how they are handled in this play in which we only had two hours and it would relieve a lot of the time constraint stress and it wouldn’t seem so farcical.

Wesley: That moment you discussed earlier, when she says “we will not rewrite his history with pity,” that was the first moment in this play when I thought to myself, “here is a drama.” Everything up ‘til that point, I thought I was in trouble. I thought it was mania. But when that moment hit it became clear that these characters are to be understood as being people. I think that a lot of the transitions that happen during it, do happen too quickly for the time allotted. They feel shoehorned into this time span of the fourteen hours. Between act I, and act II Isaac refuses to give Arnold Arnold’s smoothie and the results of that are just so extreme.

Robyne: He was immediately from this docile invalid, who for all intents and purposes is pity able, because what this woman is doing to him is inexcusable abuse, to a much more functional man, after being off of these drugs twelve hours later, and you can see in him the abuser he was. You can see in him the fun, rebellious kind of energy he used to have. And that is nonsensical over that amount of time. Another issue I had with this piece was Paige’s treatment towards Max versus Paige’s treatment towards Isaac. Paige is willing to go to the ends of the earth for Max, and wants to create this new world for her and Max to live in together. Whereas she has already written of Isaac. She is totally unwilling to put in any effort to save or even care for her son who comes home from the war broken with PTSD. Simply because he was born a man and has been adopted into the patriarchy which just feels wrong for this character.

Wesley: I disagree, I feel that Paige’s treatment of the two of them, Max versus Isaac, makes a great deal of sense. Max is in communication with Paige. They’re working together to make this world inside their house. They’re working together to create a new society. Isaac comes in with his version of reality and with his earlier indoctrination by his father, a man who he still, although he has misgivings, he can esteem to the point of humanization. Which is something that Max and Paige have lost both the will and ability to do. And while I agree Paige’s treatment of Isaac’s PTSD, it comes off as horrifying at times, I think that Isaac needs to show a similar respect for Paige’s PTSD, which he is almost never doing. Her PTSD of living with an abusive man who raped her. Who did terrible things to her. It makes sense that she would want this lack of compassion for her to no longer exist in her home.

Robyne: I agree, both of these points of view are valid to me. Isaac returning back home and seeing the chaos this home has created, attempts to impose a little order, a little cleanliness. There are dishes everywhere. There’s no food. There’s clothes thrown about willy-nilly. There’s no cleanliness. And his argument is ‘You can’t live like this.’ And coming right from the military, that’s a very strict world he comes from and the shock of coming home to this must have been extreme. Paige’s point of view on the other hand is that they no longer worry about order and cleanliness and they’re free to be the people they want to be, but that goes so far as to extend into their finances, where they no longer keep checkbooks, and if you’re coming from the world of being an adult that is not tenable. That is not a reality you can live in. And the fantasy that she creates is so extreme that that’s how she thinks it should be.

Wesley: Something that you’ll notice throughout the production is Max’s moving back and forth between Paige and Isaac, in terms of allegiance. Whenever Isaac demands for the bed to be done in a military style, Max is all for it. Yet, when Paige says it’s time to don wigs and dresses, Max is all excited for that too.

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Hir ability to go back and forth between hyper masculine and hyper “matriarchy” perspective, and I’m putting that in air quotes, it shows the nature of this conflict happening in America between old patriarchal style and this sort of “new age” aesthetic.

Robyne: And again the time in which Max switches. The time in which Max goes from one side to the next, in the dialogue is justified, my issue is Max switches so quickly. The changes are excused and reasoned for in the dialogue but, the switching of sides occurs in a matter of seconds due to a single instance of pulling out some wigs, and while that’s fun, it’s, again, just nonsensical, and it makes this world farcical, especially when it’s juxtaposed against a hyperrealistic set.

Wesley: And it turns the conflict from being a family drama to an archetypal drama, this back and forth. It was one of the reasons I wanted an abstract set in the first act is -these didn't feel like they were supposed to be People first, they were supposed to be archetypes first. We have the fallen patriarchy we have the new found matriarchy, we have the person being pulled between the two sides, and we have the son of the patriarchy trying to reinstall it. We have these archetypes fighting for control, rather than a household trying to remain in peace. And in Act II, something that happened especially towards the ends was these masks of these archetypes were revealed to be just that, masks. That, this person who is supposed to portray the “patriarchy” might have more compassion and forgiveness than this person that is supposed to display the matriachy. That this person who was previously in power and lost it might not deserve this treatment. Every moment that I loved in this play was when people would just stop and understand each other as individuals, and recognize that the battles that they’re waging in terms of these archetypes, in terms of order vs chaos, are the veneer they put on, it’s their drag, in order to fight for just their piece in this household.  

Robyne: I think that goes a lot towards what Taylor Mac is trying to do with this piece, it just gets clunky at the end, in my opinion. The signals seem to get mixed. I, again, have a huge issue with Paige’s treatment of Isaac and Paige’s treatment for Max. I can’t speak for being in an abusive spousal relationship, in my mind, Paige’s actions towards Arnold are completely justified, whether they are right or wrong I can’t say, she is abusing him, however it is revenge, and it is justified, whether it is morally correct it is neither here nor there. Her treatment of Max is justified, and Max’s treatment of Paige is justified, in this world, in this dialogue. Paige’s treatment of Isaac, in my opinion, is not justified, in the realism, in the kitchen drama that this piece strives to be. I Understand her, but it is not- there is not enough evidence, there;s not enough reason for her to treat Isaac as shittily as she does. And the moment of violence that happens from Isaac is completely justified, because that is what happens when you ignore someone’s PTSD. And then she removes him from the house. And for someone who is so warm and caring and compassionate to one child, to not be that for the other child, is just so illogical.

Wesley: I, I totaly disagree with that. I think that her treatment of Isaac as this person who is an infection on the household, this person that is trying to restore a balance that had caused her almost nothing but pain. While I don’t agree with her to kick him, I would like to think that if I were in her situation, I would be able to extend myself further to his situation, but it just gets at what I think all great political theatre gets at which is I understand and I disagree are not mutually exclusive concepts.

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And her kicking him out, she did it with a lot of cruelty. But I think it just went further to show her damage. This is a broken person too. We’re not suppose to agree with her, I think, when she kicks him out. I think we’re supposed to be wanting him to stay. But I’m not sure if it’s best for Isaac, as much as it is I’m not sure if it’s the right thing for her to do. She does it with a great deal of cruelty, she gives this horrifying monologue towards the treatment of soldiers when they come back from the wars. And I think a lot of made me okay with it was in Max’s decision to stay, Max’s decision to take care of hir father. I think that in this, in this choice to be compassionate against the person who caused hir such harm, something was learned from Isaac. And the idea that the learning of compassion could come from the person in the patriarchal society, and the cruelty could come from somebody with the veneer of the matriarchal, is the exact kind of discussion I like to hear from these sorts of archetypal presentations.

Robyne: I agree, i think those are beautiful moments, and in Act I Isaac is the audience surrogate, the audience’s avatar into this world, where as in Act II the story shifts to being all about Max and Max’s experience and the audience sees the world through Max. I just feel that there are so many ghosts of darlings from previous drafts in this, like the drug use, like the puppet show, that it needs a good cleaning, and could do with a much longer run time, whether that is an extra half hour in the dialogue or - … it does not feel like a two act play, there is too much in it. And these conversations are wonderful, and these lessons are wonderful, it’s just too much and it loses itself in the absurdity.

Wesley: Well I agree, that moments of this piece, such as, this puppet show that happens in Act II where we discover more of the father’s cruelty, and the drugs and the, and the sort of Abbott and Costello Routine with turning off and on the air conditioner, they were Vaudeville, they were not realism acting, they were not suppose to give us this sense that these are people. And I agree, they derailed the piece whenever they came in. They might have been decent ideas, and they, a lot of them, were fun, but they did very little to show us the full force of what is happening within this family. And as much as I love abstract theatre, I think this piece works best when it was at its most Chekov, when it was at its most American Kitchen Sink Drama. I like the ornaments on the wall, the handmade feel of everything, the idea that paige and Max created this world, not archetypal “Matriachy”, not archetypal “New Generation”, but Paige and Max created these things, which we got from the design, and which we got any moment there was silence and people looking each other in the eye. But at those points of absolute theatricality, it became dissipated into the playwright’s dreation.

Robyne: What made this production extraordinary was the voyeurism we were allowed into these people's’ lives, and that got lost when the play needed to happen. Any issues I may have with characters, I did not have with the characterization. All four of those actors were phenomenal.

Wesley: It was some of the best acting I’ve seen on a New York Stage.

Robyne: Kristine Nielsen was a Triumph.

Wesley: Yep

Robyne: She was an absolute titan in that role. While again I may not agree with the character’s decision, her portrayal of that woman, her portrayal of that pain and the fight for that facade and the ability to switch into that fantasy she had created for herself, while being totally grounded in that background was exquisite.

Wesley: I think that this is what it must have felt like to see the role of Amanda performed for the first time in Glass Menagerie.

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She was an absolute force of nature, her joy, her eccentricities, and yet at the same time, the second she went down, to being crumbled, to being angry, it was done with such determination, and such certainty, it’s hard to describe this performance, it’s beautiful. It’s so beautifully rendered, and this Paige is treated with such humanity, but with such an objective sense of the  morality of this woman, that it really was one of the things that made this performance for me.

Robyne: Agreed.

Wesley: Something that could have easily gone very sour very fast was the portrayal of the father Arnold by Daniel Oreskes. But once again, he was incredible, he was incredible. The way he was able to perform somebody with so few lines and so little dramatic internal anguish on the same level as the nuance in Max and Isaac, but to hold his own and not turn it into this Jar Jar binks atrocity or Minstrelsy was phenomenal.

Robyne: The restraint and detail work that went into his characterization was phenomenal. The issues I have with character are in writing, in his being an invalid and within just a few hours blossoming into a much more functional human being, and while those were slight illogical fallacies for me, Daniel Oreskes was fully committed to every moment of that. Whether he was much more functional and aware or whether he was being yelled at fifty times to close the door. And his understanding, it never felt farcical and it never felt false. And that’s incredible to do.

Wesley: Yeah, it - there was something about it that could have very easily been disrespectful, it could have been played for laughs, and with Paige fighting for laughter so often, it was nice to see this character grounded in his loss of mental cognition.

Robyne: Cameron Scoggins Isaac was great, was a far more physical role than I was expecting. A lot of the physical comedy came from him and it felt a little puppet like from the director and playwright. But the honesty, the naivety, the love he has, the fight for what he thinks is right is all prevalent throughout the production.

Wesley: His determination throughout the piece and his consistency in what he’s looking for created such a great contrast to characters such as Max and he performed it with such a heart and with such an understanding that this person, who a lot of us could easily dismiss as an archetype of a soldier comes home from the wars, he did it with such nuance and understood that in this insane situation that Isaac is dropped in, a real conflict is created within the character themselves, and a real grounded sense of need to find-  to fight for organization, to fight for this household. I never got the feeling that he hated anybody in this house, but at the end when he punched her, when he punched Paige, that seemed to fit as much in the character as him hugging Max, and that speaks very much to Cameron Scoggins skill.

And then lastly we have Max performed by Tom Phalen. I’m so glad that his character wasn’t treated by either the playwright or the actor as our voice of reason, as our audience, “Let’s stand in with this character”. This was treated as a teenager, this was created as a kid.

Robyne: And beautifully so, the dialogue and the performance were both exquisitely adolescent, there was a lot of righteous indignation and narcissistic self certainty tied together with a complete lack of self-confidence and a self awareness of hir standing in the world. There were a number of times where Max talked about how all ze wanted was to go live with the radical fairies in this farm and how ze didn’t know what the future held for hir, but that that was what ze wanted. And that is so adolescent and gorgeous and it was, it was some wonderful full-bodied textures to this character.

Wesley: Yes, and the understanding that while the battle was between mostly Isaac and Paige, knowing that ze was the battlefield.

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More than the house more than the air conditioning, the battle was over Max and the future of Max. And to see that there was no clear victor at the end, Max stays with Paige but commits to the compassion of Isaac, was so beautifully rendered, never seemed wise beyond hir years, but still had a wisdom to learn. Incredibly rendered.  Incredibly - all these performances gave an idea of a family going through a paradigm shift at their core.

Robyne: Agreed. So Wesley, is Hir worth the $65 non-member ticket price?  

Wesley: I would say absolutely so. If you know this doesn’t sound like your thing, then fine, probably don’t attend, but I do agree when you say this could be the start off a kitchen sink Angels in America. It’s beautifully performed it’s beautifully written and it tells an incredible story of this era.

Robyne: Agreed. This is a great piece of theater. Catch it in the next rendition, ‘cause it will surely be back.

Wesley: Yeah.

Robyne: As always you can find us and join in on the conversation at obstructed-view.com or on Facebook or Twitter. I’m Robyne.

Wesley: And I’m Wesley.

Robyne: And remember.

Wesley: Please, don’t nod.