The term “kitchen sink drama,” meaning the gritty, British, working class plays of the late 1950s and early 1960s, could easily be applied to Taylor Mac’s extraordinary black comedy free-for-all, Hir. The term hir “is a gender-neutral, third-person singular object pronoun that replaces the use of him or her,” which points to the gender-bending confusion of the barely functioning, Central California-dwelling O’Connor family rife in a flux of sustained crisis. Upon entering the theatre, an audience is smacked in the face by a kitchen/living room set of audacious, chaotic untidiness (kudos to scenic designer Thomas A. Walsh and prop master Josh La Cour). At lights up, matriarch Paige (Cynthia Kania) can be seen moving around in the stuff-strewn room. Slouched in a chair wearing a dress, clown wig, and face paint, Paige’s husband, the stroke-struck, debilitated Arnold (Ron Bottitta), lurches and drools as he utters incomprehensible sounds. Young Isaac O’Connor (Zack Gearing), a marine back from the Middle East, pounds on a front door he can’t possibly enter for all the stuff piled there. His mother sends him around to the back door. Upon entering and absorbing the anarchic disarray, he barfs into the kitchen sink again and again with each revelation of the domestic situation, which has his sweet, but vengeful mother in charge of a Dionysian chaos, ruling the roost like mad maenad. She was an abused wife and she revels in her power to humiliate her helpless husband.
Capping Isaac’s return home, he finds that his younger sister, Max (Puppett), is deeply, proudly into transgender transformation. Lest you think that the poor returning soldier is an innocent victim here, the truth comes out that he was cashiered for multiple drug offenses, graphically described in Taylor Mac’s brilliant script. Perhaps his job in the Marine mortuary packing up body parts for shipment back home to grieving loved ones may have sent him seeking chemical soothing.
The action of act one is disturbingly hilarious, unlike anything I have seen before. Many in the audience were able to laugh a lot; myself, less so. But when I did convulse in shameful laughter, the reflex was grippingly powerful. Act two delves deeper into the familial cauldron, dredging up a past that explains act one and prompts some devastating revelations and dire consequences. The contrast is powerful and affecting. Hir is great theatre of the highest caliber.
The cast is simply and thoroughly marvelous. Cynthia Kania delivers a nuanced performance of terrific range and power. As Isaac, the appealing Zack Gearing, in all of his character’s youthful confusion, meets the script’s demands with ease and aplomb. Puppett lends an impish, puckish quality to her performance, leavened with an appealing vulnerability. And Ron Bottitta as the drooling, lurching creator of the family woes is a dominating presence onstage that cannot be ignored.
The production, under the superb direction of Bart DeLorenzo, is enhanced by the lighting design of Katelan Braymer and costume design of Merrily Walsh. And the stage is impeccably managed by Beth Mack.
Taylor Mac, a MacArthur genius, is a titanic talent, and this staging of Hir is nothing short of brilliant.
The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble production of Hir continues through March 17 at Odyssey Theatre, 2055 South Sepulveda Blvd. in Los Angeles.