Saturday, 10 February 2018

HIR by Taylor Mac - Midsumma, Red Stitch

Hir at Red Stitch
Photo: Teresa Noble

“The youth don’t understand you can’t mess with form and content at the same time.”

Isaac has been in the army; the weight of the war is still in his body, causing him to stoop, to not look people in the eye, to vomit. He’s returned home, hoping to be embraced by his parents and his sister. But his family has changed; this comfortable home is now a mess of clothes on the floor and dirty dishes, empty cupboards and piled up furniture.

This is not the reunion Isaac was looking for.

Father Arnold has had a stroke and mother Paige is feeding him a cocktail of pills to keep him docile. He’s on estrogen and made-up like a clown. Max, who was once Maxine, now identifies as transgender and insists on the pronouns of “ze” and “hir”.

The “hir” and “here” homophone is key to Paige’s many rants throughout the play; with all this brand-new information at her fingertips, she’s ready to change the world. And she’s starting with upending the patriarchal structure of the family home.

Taylor Mac is a performance artist whose most recent work in Australia was headlining the Melbourne Festival with his twenty-four-hour show, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. judy’s queer sensibilities radically reimagined music and musicals from across America’s two centuries.

The play Hir echoes one of Paige’s pronouncements about not messing with form and content at the same time; much of the structure of this family drama is quite traditional. If not for the central LGBT content, the form of the story feels not unlike a kitchen-sink drama that might be staged at the Melbourne Theatre Company.

But the passages that feel like they could be teaching the audience abut a troubling messiness in the characters themselves. Paige and Max are trying to forge a new hir-story without really knowing what they are going to replace the patriarchy with. Paige insists on homeschooling Max, leading to lots of knitted craft on the walls and banjo playing, but leaves hir with no greater ambition than living in a commune.

Director Daniel Clarke has brought together a hell of a creative team to populate the tiny Red Stitch stage with a messy set and complicated characters. For a story that threatens to spiral out of control at any moment, he has a clear vision of what he wants, allowing us insight into the characters amidst the kaleidoscopic chaos.

Adrienne Chisholm’s set and costume design goes full-tilt rainbow realness; it’s a kind of absurd naturalism – you can imagine this was once a functional family abode until the family’s new sensibilities exploded. As Paige explains “We don’t do cupboards anymore. We don’t do order. Places and cupboards are what your father wanted.”

As Paige, Belinda McClory is her usual powerhouse dialled up to eleven, twelve and beyond. What was Paige like before Arnold’s stroke? There are hints, but what’s in that place now is incomprehensible to Isaac and a force of nature to Max, who sometimes feels as much of a victim of Paige’s newfound beliefs as ze was under hir father’s roof.

Harvey Zaska-Zielinski’s Max is a headstrong teenager given the ultimate power by hir mother to be themselves. His performance is remarkably complicated; shifting between excited at previously unknown freedoms and occasionally scared Max won’t live up to Paige’s expectations.

Ben Grant’s Arnold is mostly subdued and monosyllabic but he brings a vulnerability to his character that he shares with his just-returned son Isaac; they feel powerless in this new regime. And Taylor Mac’s play is at pains to be clear that tearing down society’s structures might be problematic if you have no true sense of what to replace that with.

If everyone is everything, what does that mean?

Jordan Fraser-Trumble as Isaac
Photo: Teresa Noble

As the literal and figurative straight man, Jordan Fraser-Trumble’s Isaac is withdrawn and stilted, his PTSD ready to explode out of him at any moment. Early on, Fraser-Trumble’s work seemed hesitant but then it became clear that was key to Isaac, the weight of history is on his shoulders; he is all men. His work here is amazing.

Hir is as thrilling and challenging a work as I have ever seen on stage. Its set up is simple and its premise is clear. But while it moves in ways you might expect in a family drama, the endeavour drives toward questions that are difficult to grapple with and answers to which are almost impossible to form.


Harvey Zielinski & Jordan Fraser-Trumble in Hir
Photo: Teresa Noble

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Falsettos by William Finn & James Lapine - Midsumma

The cast of Falsettos
Photo: Belinda Strodder

It’s 1979 and Marvin has left his wife Trina for a man named Whizzer. Marvin is trying to maintain a tight-knit family, somehow hoping to keep his wife and his son and his lover happy. His psychiatrist, Mendel, seems to be helping, until he falls in love with Trina.

William Finn’s Falsettos is somewhat of a cult musical; though it has been on Broadway twice, both runs were quite short. Finn is probably best known for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and his most recent Broadway musical was an adaptation of Little Miss Sunshine.

Falsettos is, in fact, a combination of two shows that originated off-Broadway at either end of the 1980s, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland. March feels like Stephen Sondheim’s Company, a kaleidoscope of songs from people who know the slightly-unlikable main character. Falsettoland has a more traditional story arc and while as a second act, it’s only set two years later in 1981, the world had changed dramatically for gay men when it was first produced in 1990.

The show is effectively a story and a sequel to that story. Two books separated by an intermission. And StageArts’ production is brilliant.

In a show as lyrically complex and demanding as Falsettos, an intimate production is fitting. The “small band” is a solo pianist (David Butler) who gets quite the workout over the two-hour plus running time. The set is minimalist, a black and white silhouette of New York, alluding to the chess that son Jason likes to play (though it’s hard to look at a chess board set in a musical and not think of Chess, which is the wrong mood the be in for a show like this).

There were a few technical hiccups on opening night with missed lighting cues, but that’s a minor issue when everything else is so strong. Director Tyran Parke keeps the pace up throughout the show, with some rather impressive theatrical trickery that effectively digs into the characters’ moods and psyches. Choreography by Madison Lee is stunning throughout, most memorably in “Everyone Tells Jason to See a Psychiatrist” and “The Baseball Game”. Exciting stuff.

The cast is superb and it feels like they’ve been living with these characters for a long time. Sarah Shahinian’s Trina is the backbone of the first act and her two solo numbers are striking and heartbreaking. In a show that feels like a storm, with a family’s lives turned upside-down, Trina’s spotlight moments are intimate but no less complicated and messy. Shahinian’s performance is mesmerising.

Nick Simpson-Deeks as Mendel
Photo by Belinda Strodder
Psychiatrist Mendel is central to the complicated machinations of the plot but in lesser hands could have been forgotten at the fringes of this show; with Nick Simpson-Deeks in the role, this was not allowed to happen. His conflicted psychiatrist is fascinating; Mendel is both in and out of control. Simpson-Deeks shows us the inner workings of a man trying to help this family while also falling in love with Trina. He’s incredible.

Ben Jason-Easton is as great a performer as you’d want in the role of Jason, the son whose dad has come out and whose therapist is falling in love with his mother. Jason is at the heart of the second act, suffering through a more complicated adolescence than most. Jason-Easton knows his stuff; he makes us laugh and makes us hurt. His performance is remarkable.

Marvin feels like a narrator to his own life until late in the second act, when he must confront the failing health of his partner, Whizzer. Falsettos feels much like a frantic comedy with the occasional dramatic beat until deep into Falsettoland when Whizzer is dying from the unnamed AIDS. It’s 1981 and at the beginning of the crisis; this family’s life, as if it wasn’t already a mess, takes a darker turn.

Don Winsor and Sam Ward make a fine pair; their relationship is always complicated but they move in ways that make Marvin and Whizzer seem perfectly suited to each other, even when they are breaking up. “What Would I Do?” is a beautiful, tear-inducing finale that the actors nail.

Falsettos is a remarkable tale of unconventional and found families set at a time when this story could have quickly torn them apart. And in this production, it never hits a false note.


Father & son, Falsettos
Photo: Belinda Strodder