Chicago Theater Review: HIR (Steppenwolf Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on July 9, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


From the start, a classic curtained proscenium conceals the utter disorder that detonates on Steppenwolf Theatre’s sprawling mainstage. Hir, now in a Chicago premiere, is both the title and a gender-neutral pronoun combining “his” and “her” (and pronounced “heer”). Its relentlessly radicalized world is the creation of singer-songwriter/performance artist/playwright Taylor Mac (who prefers to be called “judy,” a pronoun more than a name; hence the lowercase “j”), whose predictably provocative play details an unforgettable anti-family. Take “unforgettable” as you will.

Billed as a “subversive comedy,” Hir was begun in 1997, inspired by Steppenwolf’s famed production of a different dark work, Sam Shepard’s Buried Child. That much, at least, is certain; little else is during two discomfiting, character-driven hours. (Oddly, Hir’s celebration of bohemian excesses really recalls Kaufman and Hart’s oddball Sycamore clan; this could be 2017’s You Can’t Take It with You, except that it’s not as funny.)

No question, Mac’s two dynamically different acts are a test—of an audience’s capacity to connect with craziness. That tolerance for trauma is both helped and hindered by Mac’s occasional shocks of recognition and Hallie Gordon’s chaos-controlling direction.

Any plot in Hir is far less crucial than the character conflicts that simulate one—or the curious quirks that construct these zanies. Mac’s surreal survival sitcom exposes—as in a living autopsy—a dysfunctional family from the inside out. The occasion is the return of oldest son Isaac (Ty Olwin), a soldier who lost his bearings as a “mortuary affairs” grunt forced to pick up body parts as compassionately as possible. Dishonorably discharged for drug taking, he’s come home (to a split-level in a central California valley) on a hot August afternoon to find stability and routine. To Mac that means the patriarchal power structure.

But there’s been a rules-changing “paradigm shift”—a domestic coup d’état—since Isaac enlisted. His mom Paige (manic Amy Morton) has transformed the household into a trash-ridden hoarder’s den and a literal “no man’s zone.” It’s all part of her ultra-progressive experiment in imposing total political correctness on the abode and its inhabitants. Paige will indict, as Steppenwolf artistic director Anna D. Shapiro puts it in the program, the “ideological constructs that helped perpetuate the status quo.”

Liberated by the fortuitous stroke that’s reduced her abusive husband Arnold (a pathetic Francis Guinan) to slobbering and slurring, she’s emasculated him (dressing him as an evil clown). Selling the home to generate income, Paige has given up any pretense to order. No more genders, no laundry, no cleaning, no television—but, strangely, plenty of air conditioning. Now just a neighborhood nutcase, former plumber Arnold can no longer hit or rape. He’s content to screech and to sleep in a cardboard box—essentially homeless at home.

“Eccentric but not insane,” Paige has plunged into a weird amalgam of lockstep nonconformity. Since, like nature, society abhors a vacuum (created by Arnold’s welcome incapacitation), in one giant improvised innovation she’s remade their world. The principal beneficiary or victim is Max (Em Grosland), a home-schooled, transgendered “LGBT+” teenager transitioning into new pronouns like “Ze” and savoring the freedom to become a masculine asshole.

Paige is convinced we’re all queer and that nature wants to reclaim her ugly and frail house from the landfill beneath it. Though she has zilch musical aptitude, Max will become a transgressive troubadour who lives off the people. Eventually the gender females will run off to a neo-hippie commune and commune with the cosmos.

But—who’d have thought it?—Isaac is at heart (if that’s the right word) a reflexive reactionary who learned all the wrong lessons in Afghanistan. Defying his name, Isaac will be nobody’s sacrifice. This prodigal son and disgraced warrior (who mystifyingly throws up whenever his mother turns on the blender) hates Paige’s feminist agenda. In the second act the PTSD-afflicted survivor reasserts masculine dominance: He cleans up his mother’s mess, plugs in the TV, turns off the a.c., assigns chores, and runs a newly-butch Max through “basic training.” Defensive and deranged, Paige fights back by staging some “therapeutic shadow-puppetry” depicting a crack-brained women’s revolution at a beauty parlor.

Hir’s sad showdown implies that there’s no compromise, no quarter, no middle ground between the men’s passion to control and the women’s refusal to care about anything anymore. Yet another center cannot hold and mere anarchy is loosed upon the land, namely Hir. It’s all too easy to wish a plague on both these “houses” in a home.

This bitter offering is a very debatable proposition: Is Mac spoofing the ultra-sensitive p.c. mentality as much as slamming X-chromosome arrogance? Has the playwright conjured up all this self-defeating confusion to show there’s no changing human nature or sick societies?  You may well prefer to keep the question as rhetorical as judy does.

As often with Steppenwolf, there’s a whole lot of shaking going on. This family “hirstory” is a virtual feeding frenzy of 2017 counter-culture contradictions, whether it dumps on dad or merrily mocks mom. Either way, alas, it sheds much more heat than light. Mac’s brave new world smacks of ugly déjà vu. But Hallie Gordon knows how to make good pandemonium: Her quartet is dementedly dedicated to their dead-end caricatures. And, yes, there are laughs behind the shocks.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre
1650 N Halsted St
ends on August 20, 2017
for tickets, call 312.335.1650 or visit Steppenwolf

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Peter July 23, 2017 at 5:06 pm

The review fails to mention the incredible acting performances of all actors, but most particularly Amy Morton. Morton’s ability to portray an extremely confused and tortured soul, who creates her refuge from the dramatic and dynamic life around her through carefully controlled chaos, is masterful. She has simply mastered the character and the rapid fire lines of dialogue in the play. This is essential to understand what slowly evolves into understanding her inner furry and obsession with control. It is rare to see an actor so personify her character. This is, no doubt, a difficult play to watch because of the painful struggle of the characters, but a very important and timely dialogue and above all, an award worthy performance by Morton that should not be missed.


Lawrence Bommer July 24, 2017 at 7:30 am

I agree it’s a masterful and very controlled performance of a character out of control. My problem remains with Paige’s reduction to a politically correct and morally clueless distortion of the feminist agenda–and the feminine mystique as well.


Nikki Smith August 21, 2017 at 4:40 pm

Unfortunately, the review is much better written than the play. The character Paige is one-dimensional and offensive. I cannot image why a good actress like Amy Morton risked this. Zany comedy this is not.


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