A familiar story: a seemingly stable nuclear family is exposed as deeply dysfunctional. An unfamiliar story: a war veteran (Isaac) returns home to find a sibling in transition (Max) and a newly liberated mother (Paige) feeding the family patriarch (Arnold) estrogen and dressing him up in wild clown drag and diapers. This absurd realist tale is American playwright Taylor Mac’s show Hir, which is having it’s Canadian premiere this winter in a production by Vancouver’s Pi Theatre. The first time I read the description of this play my jaw dropped and my mind flooded with questions. How can one play tackle gender identity, trauma, PTSD, and patriarchy in two hours? And how can these issued be honoured while raising a laugh?
I called Calgary-based actor Jordan Fowlie, who plays Max, to get some answers. When I asked Fowlie about how the cast and crew navigate the challenges of humorously tackling sensitive topics, he was quick to commend director Richard Wolf and Pi Theatre for ensuring that rehearsals are a safe space full of resources for actors to explore how heavy the play is while still keeping things light-hearted. “We don't want to put on a show that deals with such heavy subjects and make anyone feel like we’re making fun of them,” Fowlie explains, “we want to show that we’re very serious about these things that we’re representing, because they’re very real and a lot of people deal with these different issues everyday.” While Hir may broach topics that audiences are used to seeing only in dramatic contexts, the play normalizes these issues while pointing out the absurdity of the world they exist in.
When I asked Fowlie about what drew him to Hir, he explained the appeal of a show that pushes boundaries while also offering exposure for important topics. “It was through media that I discovered what transgender meant,” Fowlie explains, “in that moment that I was like, oh my gosh I’m transgender. That answered so many things for me”. We talked about the importance of different kinds of representation for the LGBTQ2IA+ community, and Fowlie commended Hir for educating the audience through narrative. There is no lecture on gender identity; instead, as characters express the messy and complicated parts of themselves, the audience bears witness to the many ways gender can be expressed and experienced. Fowlie explains that seeing work like Hir “is so important because it can open things up for people. Even if it’s not for the individual, if they have a friend or child or sibling, anyone who is going through any of these things, any kind of exposure helps them understand more.”
The play, which premiered in New York in 2015, has been seriously lauded in it’s various iterations. While much of this celebration is for the unique way Hir packages absurd comedy, the timely address of certain politics is not lost on audiences. A month before I wrote this article, Donald Trump’s administration set out to redefine gender as based exclusively on one’s given sex at birth, in an attempt to erase and marginalize gender non-conforming and transgender individuals. This week Ontario Premier Doug Ford proposed a gender resolution policy that sought to remove mentions of gender identity from school sexual education curriculums. Thanks to large backlash, much of it coming from the LGBTQ2IA+ community, this resolution was withdrawn.
While many turn to comedy to distract themselves from the perils of our contemporary political landscape, others welcome productions like Hir as a safe venue to explore these issues through humour. As Fowlie noted, “good heavy theatre like this is necessary, especially in today’s day and age… who knows when the next time will be that you see something on this topic, or like this?”
My hope? Very soon.
Hir runs November 23rd-December 8th at Vancouver Civic Theatre’s Annex. Tickets and more info can be found here.