Ensemble Company's HIR is a Challenging-Work

OVIEDO — There are often plays that are deemed “important works” because of the topics they cover, the ways those topics are covered or both.  Unfortunately, it is also often true that these works remain underproduced because theaters may fret as to whether they will draw an audience given the themes, whether hey will stir controversies that may ultimately harm the theater and its long term success and/or whether they can be produced effectively within the constraints of the theater and its space. 

This is especially true of community theaters, which often do not have the luxury of missteps in any of these areas if they are going to be viable long term.  HIR by Taylor Mac is such a play.  Luckily for Orlando audiences, The Ensemble Company has not allowed any of the aforementioned potential red stop signs keep them from bringing it to us.

HIR is not an easy play to experience, and it shouldn’t be.  Any work that tackles weighty subjects such as domestic abuse, trauma, addiction, marginalization, gender identity, dysfunctional family dynamics.and more cannot be easy.  To do so in the form of a dark comedy/drama, one that often has us laughing when parts of our judgemental subconscious says we shouldn’t and crying when we are so broken by the brokenness we see on stage, makes the journey even more treacherous at times.

Set in suburban America and focusing on a family consisting of Paige, her transgender son Max (who is transitioning from female to male), her disabled husband Arnold (who has suffered a traumatic brain injury), and Isaac, Max’s brother,(recently returned who home after a three-year absence in the military in Afghanistan), we can see from lights up that something is seriously amiss. The kitchen, dining and living areas we see before us look like a homeless encampment and Arnold is dressed in a gown, garish make up and a crazy wig.

And the “fun” before us is only starting.Throughout the course of Act 1, we learn that Paige (portrayed by Jeanine Henry) has assumed the dominant, stereotypically masculine role in the household while Arnold (Thomas Muniz) is infantilized and dependent on her care, if one can even refer to it as such. She has become as abusive in her own ways as Arnold is said to have been (to this point in the story) in the past if not more so.  He has been forced into an existence contrary to anything he enjoyed before and been emasculated not just by his medical condition and dress, but by estrogen that Paige is forcing him to take in order to kill any remaining masculinity he may have left. . Max (Emmitt Williams) is transitioning from female to male with Paige’s support, further upending traditional gender roles. The HIR referred to in the title is actually Max’s (pronounced “here”) is Max’s preferred pronoun. 

Max’s journey is a fraught one…unsure of how masculine or feminine to act or  how to best explain or explore interests in men post transition.  When Isaac (Daniel Luis Molina) returns from war, struggling with drug addiction and traumatized by his work half a world away collecting the strewn body parts of dead soldiers, tensions escalate as he challenges Paige’s authority and tries to reassert male dominance in the home.  The impending clashes that play out in Act 2 seem inevitable and eventually are.HIR is far from a perfect play; it sometimes hits us over the head with some of its messaging in quite repetitive fashion, leaving actors to attempt to find nuance when they deliver similar lines for the 3rd or 4th time. The humor, often seemingly purposely in your face and offensive so as to draw a reaction, is actually the decadent dessert the playwright gives us with which to down the necessary vegetables, the incredibly heavy themes and family histories playing out before us. 

It is obvious that director Tara Kromer has decided to lean quite heavily into that comedy and in this production it certainly carries the day.  Kromer certainly achieves that perceived aim here, but at times one wishes the dramatic moments landed with equal power.The set, by Bonnie Sprung, is a marvel of innovation: working fridge, blender, sink and shrewdly hidden set reveals for the end of the show, As is the norm, she delivers what is needed and then some. I found myself at intermission trying to find plays that could further test her prowessMolina and Williams, as Isaac and Max respectively, are the highlights of the production, deftly navigating comedy, tragedy, pathos and sibling connection quite effectively. Molina, asked to travel from shocked observer to agent of change while also showing us the incredibly broken ex-soldier struggling with addiction, is effective throughout and at his most heart breaking when an accident leads to a chain of events that destroys hope of any family future.  Williams, playing the complicated Max, takes a part that could be simply played as over the top and a caricature and layers it with subtlety and depth that make us care despite some of Max’s childish and provocative language and actions.  It is a shame that both Molina and Williams are looking to move from Orlando.  Our loss will be the gain of wherever they land.Molina faces the difficulty of playing a man who is a mere shadow of what he once was…and what he once was is not someone we would like.  Largely muted by stroke and the meds he is plowed with, Arnold is left to in large part show us his soul through his limited physicality and the grunts, moans and repeats with which he reacts to the others. Molina mines this all to great effect, never becoming a mere breathing prop or side show, but informing the plot in tremendous ways throughout.Henry faces the toughest task of all, portraying the often volatile and currently abusive Paige. One understands and can even empathize to a degree with her actions and words, but overall her character is one that comes across as quite cold and vindictive in her decision making. Henry navigates this quagmire quite effectively, but her cold disconnect from a couple of big reveals and moments in Act 2 land a bit too detached to have the effect in audiences I believe they intend to.

HIR is a play that will take you on a journey you may not want to go on and will leave you in a state of unease on your ride home. But, it is a necessary work. The Ensemble Company should be commended for taking the chance of putting this in front of Orlando audiences in this effective and recommended production.  Orlando audiences, I encourage you to catch it before it is gone.HIR runs for one more weekend at The Ensemble Company, located within the Oviedo Mall within the Imagine Performing Arts Center. Friday and Saturday at 7:00pmSunday at 2:00pm. Go to www.imagineperformingartscenter.org/events for tickets.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *