Taylor Mac knows how to throw down a challenge.
Visiting L.A. last year with the music party/drag extravaganzas “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” and “Holiday Sauce,” the New York-based writer-performer delivered running commentaries that reframed American history and traditions, daring audiences to rethink some of their most deeply ingrained notions. Diversity was celebrated, patriarchy and privilege challenged.
A similarly sly sense of anarchy pervades Mac’s 2014 play “Hir,” a family drama that doubles as a depiction of America in the midst of reassessing itself. Mac doesn’t perform in the Los Angeles premiere at the Odyssey Theatre, but the mischievous spirit of this MacArthur fellow (class of 2017) is readily felt.
Home has changed when a young soldier returns to California’s Central Valley (familiar territory for Mac, who grew up in Stockton). Isaac (Zack Gearing) recoils as his eyes dart around his family’s sad, plasterboard house, where clothes lie strewn across the floor, bulging plastic bags are piled in corners and furniture has been redistributed to rooms it wouldn’t ordinarily occupy (set design by Thomas A. Walsh, props by Josh La Cour).
His stroke-debilitated father (Ron Bottitta) has been dressed in a pink negligee and rainbow wig, his face covered in feminized clown makeup, heavy on the eye shadow. This makeover is the handiwork of Mom (Cynthia Kania), who seems almost frantically cheerful but turns harshly reprimanding whenever Dad displeases her. Grabbing a water mister, she sprays the mumbling, disoriented ghost of a man as if he were a misbehaving tomcat. She rules a roost that Dad once dominated with anger, insults and injurious hands. She wants no more of the false sense of order he demanded.
A further surprise emerges when Isaac’s younger sibling, teenage Maxine, enters the room as gender-transitioning Max (played by a performer who goes by Puppett). Wearing a wife-beater, Max swaggers around, trying to assert “hirself” — preferring the pronoun “hir,” pronounced like “here” — but generally lapsing into the all-purpose sulk of disgruntled adolescents everywhere.
“We are engaged in a radical re-imagining of possibility,” Mom says, the sort of statement that has become a Mac hallmark.
Feel free to read the absurdist goings-on as a depiction of patriarchy in decline, but don’t expect it to be liberal claptrap. Everyone behaves abominably, and beliefs of all sorts are revealed to be half-formed and willfully insensitive. Humor tips into horror and back again, a seesaw experience fearlessly propelled by director Bart DeLorenzo and his actors.
Isaac — who suffered his dad’s abuse like everyone else — tries to adjust on the fly but tends to get overwhelmed. Damaged and thin, he seeks peace but instead encounters self-righteous anger and rigid demands.
Perhaps none of us should get too comfortable nowadays, but is constant antagonism getting us anywhere? There must be a better way.
Evolve. Be glorious. That’s Taylor Mac’s suggestion, knowing full well that it won’t be easy.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Where: Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, scattered other times; ends March 17
Info: (310) 477-2055, Ext. 2; odysseytheatre.com
Running time: 2 hours