In the new, darker than dark comedy from writer and performance artist Taylor Mac, HIR (pronounced ‘here’; it’s a combination of ‘his’ and ‘her’), presented by Stray Cat Theatre and performing at Tempe Center for the Arts until May 13, Issac has just spent three years working overseas with the military working in the Mortuary Affairs Department. His duties were essentially picking up the pieces of blown body parts. And now, after a dishonorable discharge for reasons that need to be revealed within the play (you’ll never guess why), he’s now returned to the family home somewhere in Central Valley, California. And it’s a mess. It’s a mess both literally and figuratively, and the ex-marine is having trouble processing the information.
But there’s a reason, and it turns out to be monstrous. Yet, even though your feelings towards mom and her appalling behavior towards dad softens somewhat once you learn of the depths of dad’s previous depravity before he suffered a stroke, mom’s vengeance, based on a need to continually humiliate and emasculate dad’s male sense of strength, is really just as horrifying. That softening of the sympathies towards her is only temporary, and that’s also the strength of this riveting Taylor Mac play: Keep laughing, despite the reveals of the second half, and the dysfunction might also be yours.
There are other strengths to the play, but they belong to this Ron May directed production; three good performances and an outstanding one. KJ Williams as gender-bender Max nicely conveys a sense of surface bluster and confidence, but every now and again that confidence is punctured, and from time to time, Williams successfully reveals a peek at the more vulnerable layer of Max’s personal doubt.
But the outstanding performance comes from Cathy Dresbach. From her valley resume, Dresbach knows a thing or two about subversive comedy, and here with her body language, her eye rolls, and her overall loony ebullience, Dresbach delivers, backed by years of learning how. What makes the performance great is that you believe in her. There’s truth in the madness, glimpsed when the muscles in Dresbach’s face drops to a humorless countenance in the more serious moments of revelation. It’s a showcase role, but there’s no showing off.
If you know anything about writer Taylor Mac then you’ll see where HIR is coming from. He was born in California. His father was a returning Vietnam War vet. His nonconformist mother encouraged him to embrace mistakes, and his work is often described as a fight against conformity and classification. As a performance artist he intentionally dresses in a colorfully incompatible manner with his gender, and, according to his personal profile on his website, he prefers to be called judy (all lowercase) as a gender pronoun,
Meet the Coopers. You would never want to know them, but meet them, all the same. It will be well worth your time.