Powerful performances bring Pi Theatre's Hir to gender-bending life

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      By Taylor Mac. Directed by Richard Wolfe. A Pi Theatre production. At the Orpheum Annex on Saturday, November 24. Continues until December 8

      Hir’s award-winning playwright, Taylor Mac, uses the gender pronoun judy. Genderfucking theatre and art worlds—which are still heavily binary and heteronormative—is a creative and political act, and it’s vitally important.

      Hir takes its title from the portmanteau of him and her, and is pronounced “here”. Hir and ze are the pronouns for Max (Jordan Fowlie), which comes as a surprise to Max’s brother Isaac (Victor Dolhai) upon his return home after three years at war. In Isaac’s absence, teenage Max has come out as a gay trans man, their abusive father, Arnold (Andrew Wheeler), has had a debilitating stroke, and their mother, Paige (Deb Williams), has become a bit unhinged.

      Hir is supposed to be a dark comedy, and there are quite a few funny moments, but it’s also devastatingly sad and complex, exploring the intersections of class, gender, queerness, familial violence, PTSD, trauma, addiction, and the patriarchy. Isaac’s return disrupts the fragile and fraught new reality his family has created without him. The legacy of Arnold’s violence is everywhere, as is the extent to which it’s been normalized. Max recoils every time Arnold grunts, but also raises hir fist to the older man as a threat frequently, and swats hir mom almost as a reflex. Isaac, who’s coping with addiction, has internalized his father’s anger and made it his own. Paige insists that the house be kept an untidy disaster—Arnold would break fingers for dirty dishes—and now she derives pleasure from humiliating and emasculating Arnold. She makes him wear a dress, hoses him down naked in the back yard, and sprays him with a water bottle whenever he does something she doesn’t like.

      Jordan Fowlie as Max
      Tim Matheson

      But Paige and Max are also free, sort of, both in their relative safety and in the life they’ve cultivated since Arnold’s stroke—a life largely built around Max’s transitioning. “Max saved me. I didn’t have to be beat up by your father. I was a father,” Paige tells Isaac as she attempts to explain the gender and queer theory she’s been learning and appropriating from the home-schooled, Google-educated Max. It’s telling that Paige positions her newfound safety in relation to claiming her own masculinity, and then to witness how she and her sons perpetuate the cycle of violence in so many different ways.
      Leaving the performance, I overheard some 60-something audience members talking about Hir, calling it “edgy, risky, and provocative”. It is provocative—in some powerful ways and in others that are frustrating—but Hir also feels outdated because the language around gender and sexuality has evolved as more trans women and trans men are telling their own stories and taking control of their narratives.

      Pi Theatre’s casting of Fowlie, a trans man, in the role of Max is important, and it’s also an excellent creative choice. Fowlie is fantastic and his performance is nuanced and vulnerable. And what Williams does with Paige is remarkable. Whatever wacky, smart, cruel, incisive, generous, or horrifying thing Paige does is rooted in her own trauma, and Williams never lets us forget that. The entire cast is riveting, and under Richard Wolfe’s direction, the two hours fly by.

      Hir premiered in the United States in 2014, and this production in 2018 marks its Canadian premiere. Four years have changed everything and nothing, depending on who you are and the space you claim with your privilege. Hir doesn’t reflect where we are now, but it does reflect some aspect of where we’ve been, and the incredible performances by this cast are worth your time.