Imagine, for a moment, that Lars von Trier decided to make a film tribute to John Waters’s Pink Flamingos. And for the script, ol’ Lars selected an adaptation of a Poppy Z. Brite story that had been written by Camille Paglia.
I draw these parallels to illustrate that Mixed Blood’s Hir isn’t just a show, it is spectacle. It’s campy, it’s disturbing, it’s grotesque, it’s touching. I have seen few things, theater or otherwise, as commanding of my attention.
This isn’t to say that Hir is insincere. It is possibly everything but insincere.
Hir, written by Taylor Mac, is a family drama: an abusive father has been decommissioned by a stroke, the mother has found new liberation in her husband’s fragility, one son has been dishonorably discharged from his gig of picking up body parts for the military in the Middle East, and the other son was recently a daughter. They live in a dumpy suburb.
And if I discussed everything about Hir that I want to talk about, it would be bad form. That would satisfy me, perhaps, but it would spoil your good time. There’s a lot to unpack and I took about twice as many notes during the performance as I normally do.
At intermission, I sent a text to my husband. Ben’s a grad student of clinical mental health counseling, you see, and focuses on people whose sexual and gender identities make them particularly vulnerable to sexual violence and substance abuse. Hir is, in varying degrees, about all these things. “You should go to the next performance. I want to talk to you about this.”
Ben’s principal reaction after he saw it? “Holy shit, that was brutal.” Ben agrees with my assessment that this family is unable to distinguish karma from revenge and injuring one another from self-defense—and, despite eloquent recitations of manifestos to the contrary, the family is largely blind to both its behavior and the psychological causes of that behavior.
Except for Max, the younger son and, in a way, the namesake of the show. (“Hir” is Max’s preferred pronoun, a gender-unspecific addition to “him” and “her,” because Max identifies as neither male nor female.)
Max’s mental health is nevertheless going to be super-fucked until kid’s, like, 30. We know this because Ben and I were both bright, angry gay teenagers stuck in poor, isolated, disagreeable little towns and, God help us, Jay Eisenberg’s performance of Max resurrected long-buried memories of horrible adolescent behavior. Only a heartfelt embodiment of queer adolescence could make me squirm. Kudos to Eisenberg for delivering it.
Also, like Max, Ben was homeschooled. Except by people who really do believe Noah’s Ark actually happened. Which is super funny once you see the show.
Ben did not—for obvious professional reasons—agree with my suggestion that the easiest way for Hir’s family to establish healthy boundaries would be murder-suicide and that murder-suicide seemed exceedingly likely.
At any rate, this is perhaps an improper response because it is an attempt at psychological analysis of play designed to largely address politics, not psychology. Max and
his Max’s mother, Paige, are obsessed with the political dimensions of their selves because they have yet to get their emotional selves into working order. The wounds are deep. But neither has figured out that reading lists from undergraduate gender studies courses will not soothe them.
This is the crux of what distinguishes Hir: it is a provocation, not a family drama. It’s a direct, unambiguous and, at times, refreshingly aggressive challenge to the audience. And it’s a challenge issued on a number of levels from aesthetics to ideas of masculinity and emasculation.
Yes, Mac’s script is witty. Joseph Stanley’s set is appropriately crazed. And there’s a lot to admire in Sally Wingert’s solid, fierce performance as Paige and Dustin Bronson’s thoughtful portrayal of Isaac, a man who has arguably spent his entire life being collateral damage in someone else’s war.
But it’s the game of Hot Potato the characters play with ideas surrounding gender, sex, power and control that gets all the attention. “Provocative” is an overused word and one dulled by overuse; but Hir is provocative. Hir is an incitement. Hir demands discussion and argument. This is the playwright slapping the audience across the face with a glove, hissing, “Sir, I shall see you for pistols at dawn!” If that happens, honor dictates you have to go.
Like any provocation, Hir soars in front of an audience receptive to its worldview. Sometimes an argument’s coup de grâce is meant to elicit righteous applause, not rage, and this is no gentle introduction to gender politics. Hir isn’t trying to persuade. You should absolutely go see this magnificent show—but be prepared to follow.
That is, Hir is perhaps best experienced by people who aren’t threatened by the sociological truth that gender is a fluid social construct. And though I assume this basically includes everyone reading this, that might be the wrong assumption. So if you’ve ever thought—for even a fraction of a second—that white, straight men need their own equal rights movement, you should maybe steer clear.
Unless you’re looking to get super angry or something. I won’t judge, I guess.
At any rate, if any of you see the show and want to meet up with me to talk about it, I’m game. I still have much to process.
Note: This article was updated to correct pronouns used to refer to the character Max.