Strollers' 'Hir' promises anarachy and absurdity at the Bartell


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Sep 14, 2023

Strollers' 'Hir' promises anarachy and absurdity at the Bartell

Food editor and arts reporter Stephanie Monday, left, plays Paige and Riz Moe

Food editor and arts reporter

Stephanie Monday, left, plays Paige and Riz Moe plays Isaac at a rehearsal of Strollers Theatre's production of "Hir" in St. Luke's Episcopal Church. The show opens Jan. 20 at the Bartell Theatre and runs through Feb. 4.

Among Madison theaters, the play "Hir" has been a bit of a hot potato.

Two companies considered it before Strollers Theatre picked up Taylor Mac's critically acclaimed, semi-autobiographical, very dark 2014 comedy. Originally set for 2020, Madison's production opens on Friday, Jan. 20, in the Bartell Theatre.

As a play to stage (and promote), "Hir" presents several challenges. The title, a nonbinary pronoun some prefer in place of "him" or "her," is not intuitive to pronounce (it rhymes with "here").

One main character must be played by a young actor who was born biologically female and now identifies as transgender or genderqueer. And Mac's themes — domestic abuse, drug addiction, poverty — can be a tough sell to audiences looking for theatrical escape.

Yet Madison's "Hir" has kept most of that 2020 cast and remained on Strollers’ 2022-23 season in part because of these challenges. The play is surprisingly, uncomfortably funny, and sometimes too real. Mac, in the introductory notes, calls the theatrical style "absurd realism."

"What we’re experiencing in this play is realism," director Julia Houck said during a break at a recent rehearsal in the basement of St. Luke's Episcopal Church. "To make us both laugh at it and cry with it, we need the absurdity. So sometimes, we just go a little too far in this play.

"You’re nodding along with it and you’re smiling and you’re enjoying it — and then you realize you’ve been laughing at something that gets very painful."

From left, Riz Moe, Sam White, Abi Hindle and Stephanie Monday rehearse "Hir" at St. Luke's Episcopal Church. Director Julia Houck, front right, said "this is a wallop of play to digest."

Dark, but comedy

"Hir" opens inside a cluttered, filthy "starter home" made of cheap plywood and glue, set on top of a central California landfill. (Teresa Sarkela has designed the disintegrating home, along with props designer Michelle Dayton.)

Inside, mom Paige (Stephanie Monday) and 17-year-old Max (Abi Hindle) live amid piles of dirty T-shirts and crusted dishes. Max is working through a gender transition, on hormones and newly homeschooled. Dad Arnold (Sam D. White) recently suffered a stroke. Now he wears clown makeup and sleeps in a cardboard box.

This is the chaos older brother Isaac returns to following a dishonorable discharge from the Marines for drug abuse. Surveying the scene, Isaac is shaken.

"I think for Isaac, there is a lot of living in the past," said Riz Moe, who plays Isaac. "He wants his home to be the same way that it was when he left — the good and the bad. He has strict definitions of what a home is, what family is, what a man is, and he uses those to protect himself. Paige and Max are trying to break those ideas."

Before the stroke, Arnold was an abusive monster. Now, he's close to comatose and barely verbal, so Paige does what she wants. Or rather, the opposite of what he would want.

"We don't do cupboards anymore. We don't do order," Paige says. "Places and cupboards are what your father wanted so now they’re your father's job. And since he just likes to stand by the door hoping to flee, the house is a disaster."

Monday, who's playing Paige, said her character operates on three different levels.

"She's a mom, like a June Cleaver," Monday said. "And then you hear the cruelty that comes out, her enormous frustration and disappointment and anger. And every once in awhile, you hear Paige and you just hear the truth."

Max is in many ways a typical teen — hormonal, easily frustrated, eager to be acknowledged. Max uses "ze" prounouns and says things like "I’m allowed to be selfish ’cause I’m in transition."

"Changing your gender identity, or feeling it change, you have to cope with that," said Hindle, who plays Max. "You have to find ways to get yourself through an anxiety-producing time in your life when the thing that's producing the anxiety is literally you.

"It's not something you leave at home or a job that you walk away from. It's the person that you are."

A genderqueer family drama

When "Hir" premiered in 2014 in San Francisco, playwright Lisa Kron ("Fun Home") described it in American Theatre magazine as "just your average kitchen-sink, genderqueer family drama." It's an exciting direction for Strollers Theatre, which has been producing plays in Madison since 1958.

"During COVID, I think many theaters were just trying to survive. And some didn't," said Scott Bennett, a member of Strollers’ leadership team and the producer of this show. "Now I think we have an opportunity to rebuild … we’ve been bottled up for so long.

"Shows that make people laugh, shows that make people think … the balance of these things together is what we need moving forward."

Sam White, who's playing Arnold, was an early proponent of the play and pushed to get it produced. "I said, ‘I want to play that role,’" White recalled. He and Houck, the director, went to Edgewood College together. After the initial director moved away, he helped make the connection.

"We’ve had a bit of a battle to bring this through," White said. "This play is so real, it's absurd. It touches such vulnerable buttons."

"This is a wallop of play to digest," Houck agreed. There are "transgender and veteran's issues, domestic violence, a woman's re-awakening from years as a victim, all in about 90 minutes.

"It is also a comedy about people who try to love one another enough, and often fail."

"Hir" runs at the Bartell Theatre through Saturday, Feb. 4. Coming up later this season: Madison Theatre Guild's "Bad in Bed (A Fairy Tale)," a comedy by Madison playwright Karen Saari; StageQ's production of the rock musical "Hedwig and the Angry Inch;" and Mercury Players Theatre's "Escape from Happiness," a dark comedy by George F. Walker.

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Friday, Jan. 20-Saturday, Feb. 4

The Bartell Theatre, 113 E Mifflin St.

$20 general admission, $15 veterans, seniors, students and Strollers members

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