Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Hir” at the Phoenix Theatre (3.5 stars)

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“Hir” at the Phoenix Theatre. Photo by Zach Rosing.

Hir is the story of a family that is prime for group counseling. The first thing you lock eyes on when the show begins is the father, Arnold. He is in a nightgown, diaper, and John Wayne Gacy-like makeup. Well, that was creepy. He is almost nonverbal and suffering the aftereffects of a stroke. His wife keeps him well-drugged (including estrogen) to make him more manageable. She uses a squirt bottle to keep his hands off his own penis.

Since his stroke, his wife, Paige, has fallen off the manic deep end and is exacting her revenge for the physical abuse she and her children suffered, using the opportunity to reject her husband’s prior commands, such as keeping a clean house and not working, and humiliates him with glee. Her anti-establishment rants include some great images—florescent foods like Cheetos are part of the blame for the country’s ills.

Their son Isaac has just arrived home from the army after being dishonorably discharged for drug use. He served in mortuary affairs, retrieving, collecting, and sorting body parts, so he likely has PTSD too. The blender is a vomit trigger.

Finally, there is Max, Isaac’s younger sibling. Max used to be Maxine and now insists on being referred to by the pronouns “ze” (he/she) and “hir” (him/her). Ze is very aggressive about hir transitional status and seeks companionship through online groups. Max shares most characteristics with any other angsty teenager with anger issues toward hir parents—but with a better vocabulary. Paige latches onto Max’s transition firmly, riding Max’s metaphorical coattails into a more interesting word. She revels in this new diversion and is able to speak in alphabet soup in her excitement. She even homeschools Max, which includes (again) creepy, therapeutic shadow puppet shows that reenact the family’s years of abuse at the hands of Arnold.

While Paige wholeheartedly embraces Max’s transition, she uses Arnold’s wardrobe as part of Arnold’s punishment. That’s a brain twister right there when you begin to contemplate the social statements being made.

Needless to say, Isaac, in his current condition, does not know what to think about his very changed family. In his desire to reinstate normalcy, for theirs and his own benefit, he goes into a cleaning frenzy after having been ordered not to by Paige. He instructs Max to “command the dust” and orders Arnold and Max through how to make a bed military-style—though they do a piss-poor job.

Brad Griffith (Arnold) manages to be both comedic and pitiable at the same time. You laugh but then feel a little guilty about it. But then you think of his past behavior and don’t feel as guilty. Some humor is needed to counter this dark story.

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“Hir” at the Phoenix Theatre. Photo by Zach Rosing.

Jen Johansen (Paige) gets one of my favorite phrases in that she chews through the scenery, even if that scenery seems to be chewed upon already. (The family’s home is trashed.) While Isaac is the recovering drug addict, you would think his mother was the one hopped up on meth. Johansen must be exhausted by the end of the show by Paige’s hyperactivity and non-stop self-justification.

Ben Schuetz (Issac) has the wild eyes and tense mannerisms of both a drug addict jonsing for a hit as well as a soldier in the clutches of PTSD. You could bounce a coin off his physical and psychological tension.

And Ariel Laukins (Max) … well, ze just wants to run away from it all. In the end, Laukins’s character’s posturing dissolves into just the pain of a kid who is trapped in a damaged family.

While none of the characters contains much actual depth, the show, under the direction of Mark Routhier, uses the in-your-face, exaggerated characterization technique to challenge the audience on many different levels.

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freelance editor and writer

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