REVIEW: Hir at Trustus Theatre is an exceptional study in cultural constructs

By Cindi Boiter

Libby Campbell stars in Hir

Libby Campbell stars in Hir

Taylor Mac’s dark comedy Hir, playing at Trustus Theatre’s Richard and Debbie Cohn Side Door Theatre, is a play not everyone in Columbia is going to be ready for. And that’s a shame. Because mixed into the comedy and irony and more than a few truly exquisite lines of dialogue may be some answers to the questions so many of us keep raising our fists to the sky and shouting. Questions like How, as in How did our culture get into the mess we’re in? And What, as in What are we going to do fix it?

But playwright Taylor Mac, also an author, actor, singer-songwriter, director, drag artist, Pulitzer Prize finalist, MacArthur fellow, and recipient of a slew of additional accolades, knows something not all of us want to admit, and something some of us aren’t even capable of understanding – that the culture we have constructed isn’t working, it hasn’t worked for a long time, and it may have never worked very well to begin with.

We enter into the world of Hir after the protagonist Paige, played brilliantly by Libby Campbell-Turner, has already made this realization. Having bought into the American dream of a house in the suburbs, a cookie-cutter marriage, and two darling boys supposedly guaranteeing a happily-ever-after, Paige has already found the folly in her actions given that her husband has inflicted pretty much every kind of abuse at his disposal on her, one of her sons is an arrogant young transsexual, the other a washed up military man with a penchant for doing drugs in all the wrong places (you’ll get this later), and home-sweet-home is built on a landfill, complete with clandestine pipes emitting dangerous gases. But rather than fight the reality as it presents itself to her, as so many Americans are wont to do, Paige has not only accepted, but embraced her new reality and at times appears to celebrate it.  

When her oldest son Isaac, played by Tristan Pack, returns from war to find the family unit he left behind in a state of comfortable chaos, (Dad had a stroke and appears on stage at curtain wearing clown make-up and a lady’s housecoat, his sister is now his brother, and all housekeeping has been abandoned), Paige and Isaac clash over her newly open-minded life philosophy. In trying to reassert the patriarchal structure that governed the family prior to his leaving he enlists the aid of his brother Max, played by Sebastian Liafsha, who had previously rejected all gender roles prescriptions but suddenly declares himself trans-masculine. Isaac relies on the tried and true performative guideposts of masculinity—rhetoric, denigration, intimidation, confederation, and, ultimately, violence—in his attempts to restore what he considers order to the household. But in a jaw-dropping final scene Mac exposes patriarchy for the paper tiger anyone who has ever studied the social sciences knows it to be. A simple human construct and nothing more.

Directed by Lindsay Rae Taylor, a third-year MFA Directing Candidate at USC with a pedigree that belies her academic status, (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and Tisch), there is great nuance in Campbell’s treatment of Paige and it’s easy to see these two powerhouse theatrical artists working well together. Campbell brings the personal insight of having grown to maturity enduring the silliness of performative masculinity her whole damn life and applies that experience to her interpretation of Paige. While her performance teeters toward madcap at times, and the character could have been played closer to unhinged, Campbell keeps her version of Paige grounded, self-aware. In many ways Paige is a feminist prophet and Campbell plays the prophet comfortably.

Cleverly enough, it is Max’s story (previously Maxine’s) that provides the foundation on which the larger story is built. Liafsha, a student at White Knoll High School, is a charismatic young actor who plays Max as youthfully arrogant about hir enlightenment. It is from Max that Paige learns key terms that help her navigate the “paradigm shifts” of her new world. In fact, it is the adaptation of the newly created pronoun hir, a combination of him and her, which gives the play its title.

Ripley Thames convincingly plays the role of stroke victim Arnold, Paige’s husband, with generosity and humility. Costume designer Jessica Bornick effectively dresses Thames’ character in just about as unflattering a costume as any man could manage wearing and Thames does it with ease. The chaos of the setting is created by Sam Hetler who keeps the audience on edge wondering if the players might fall into the dishevelment of the set or be squashed by a falling mattress.  Patrick Michael Kelly, Tyler Omundsen, and Logan Davies provide sound, lighting, and scenic design, and Barbara Smith is the stage manager.

It should also be said that this writer had the pleasure of seeing Taylor Mac perform three years ago at Spoleto Festival in Charleston and judy’s one-person cabaret show at the Woolfe Street Theatre was profoundly transgressive then. (Mac uses the pronoun judy rather than him/her.) The fact that Mac’s Hir is playing in Columbia at all is a telling tribute to Trustus Theatre and proof, once again, that Trustus is the shiny glint on the steel blade that keeps the Columbia performing arts scene in the 21st century.

See this play and talk about it when it’s over. Let yourself question the efficacy or futility of the constructs Hir draws into question—masculinity, homemaking, institutionalized education, college, and more, but mostly patriarchy and how “the whole alphabet of gender” undermines it so damningly.

Hir runs through June 9th and tickets are available at Trustus.org

 

Cindi Boiter is the executive director of The Jasper Project and editor of Jasper Magazine

Civil Blood Makes Civil Hands Unclean: Jason Stokes Premiers Original Historical Screenplay, Composure - by Haley Sprankle

composure  

Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Columbia where we lay our scene...

 

The year is 1903. The Tillman family, headed by the Lieutenant Governor for the State of South Carolina, and the Gonzales family, headed by the founder of The State newspaper, are in a known feud. This ancient grudge (that began in the 1880s) broke to new mutiny as Lieutenant Governor James H. Tillman murders NG Gonzales.

 

That’s where local actor, filmmaker, and screenwriter Jason Stokes’ story begins.

 

“I first heard about this story at my ‘real’ work (Media Director for the South Carolina Bar) in 2000 during a presentation on the subject by Donnie Myers. I was fascinated by the story in part because of the sensational nature of the crime, but the more I began to research the story I realized that there was much more to it than just a murder and a murder trial,” Stokes explains.  “The Tillmans and The Gonzaleses were two powerful families in the city of Columbia who did not like each other for various reasons. This feud began in the late 1880’s and continued even after the events of January 15, 1903. During that time one side wielded power and opinion in the public press while the other side railed against the Gonzaleses and The State newspaper with every stump speech.”

 

This Saturday, Stokes presents an original screenplay titled Composure based on this rich piece of Columbia’s history. His cast includes such luminary local talent such as Paul Kaufmann, Eric Bultman, Stann Gwynn, Terrance Henderson, Hunter Boyle, Clint Poston, Katie Leitner, Stan Gardner, G. Scott Wild, Libby Campbell, Kevin Bush, Jonathan Jackson, Nate Herring, and Kendrick Marion.

 

“I’ve been very fortunate not only to have these talented actors lend their craft to this project but they are also valued friends and colleagues. I promise to anyone in attendance, if the story doesn’t impress you the talent certainly will,” Stokes says.

 

While Stokes is certainly no stranger to the Columbia arts community, having been seen in productions ranging from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to Rent, not many know that he is a writer.

 

“I began writing just after my father passed away in 1989. My mother gave me a notebook to write down memories of my father when I had them but, being an adolescent, as I started writing down a memory or story it would veer away from facts to whatever fiction my mind was dreaming up at the time. So I’ve been writing for the last 27 years (to varying degrees of success),” Stokes said.

 

After writing about 30 screenplays, some of which have television spec scripts pitched to shows such as The West Wing and Castle, Stokes has developed his own style and writing process.

 

“Each screenplay is different, but they all seem to start before I really know where they are going. For example, I’ll write a scene that I either have no idea what it’s trying to say in a grand scheme, or I don’t know where it belongs in the story I’m thinking about,” Stokes delineates. “Composure was no different. The surface story was there but to make it interesting and make it build to something that makes people think was the challenge. This being a historical piece I just kept doing more and more research to see if I could find anything new to add to the layers, which took time. I worked off-and-on on the screenplay for about three years, and it wasn’t until I decided to begin with the murder and then bounce back and forth in time during the trial, to add the ‘why’ of the murder, that made it really exciting for me to want to write it.”

 

Being an actor himself adds a particularly interesting dynamic to Stokes’ work and process, as well.

 

“As an actor, it’s always a blessing to work on a well written piece of work, Tennessee Williams, Terrance McNally, Jonathan Larson, you want to chew on it as long as you can because really good, juicy dialogue and lyrics don’t come around all the time. So when I write I like to think of the story and dialogue in the vein; Would this be something I would want to sink my teeth into as an actor and rejoice in the fact that I GET to say these lines and tell this story?” Stokes adds.

 

Don’t miss the two hours’ traffic of the Trustus Side Door Theatre this Saturday, January 16 for free! Doors and bar open at 6:30 with the performance beginning at 7:30.

 

“Opinion reporting is nothing new, as evident by this story, but with the advent of technology and polarizing news outlets only compounding the divisive nature and climate I think we find ourselves in today, this is a true story that still has relevance and meaning,” Stokes says. “No one story, one person, one political ideology can be measured strictly in absolutes. If the audience can be entertained and enlightened in some way through the events of these gentlemen, then maybe the cast and I will have offered a different perspective in which to view our own world.”