There's not a damn thing wrong with Jobsite's production of Taylor Mac's HIR.
Not, mind you, that a review must tell prospective theatergoers what's wrong with a show, but when heaping on the praise — as I am about to do — any reviewer must be certain not to ignore things that could use improvement.
But in the case of this production, it's about as close to perfect as I think I've seen in a long, long time.
The story revolves around the Connor family — Max, Isaac, Paige and Arnold. Moving backwards through that list, Arnold is the patriarch, post-stroke, post-abusive husband; Paige is his wife; Isaac, an Afghanistan vet suffering PSTD who's recently received a dishonorable discharge and comes home to find his sister, Maxine, transitioning to being his brother, Max.
There's a whole lotta subtext there and if it seems like it's a setup for a play in which there's a lot of processing and making of statements, um, no. Because the lights rise on comic genius, including a prolonged scene between... well, you know what? I'm not going to spoil it for you. Jobsite has unleashed a hysterical show on its audiences and you should be as surprised and delighted by it as I was.
Because what's more delightful than physical abuse of women and children, ridiculing the disabled, PTSD and a teenager struggling to find hir place in the world, right?
Except it is. It is so damn funny.
Playwright Taylor Mac calls the play absurd realism, but cautions theater companies thusly: "If at any moment it feels like your production is venturing into theater of the absurd, theater of the ridiculous, a Brechtian remove, or a metatheatrical deconstruction, then rein it in. Likewise, if it feels like realism is steering every choice, try to find the absurdity in that realism and turn the volume up."
I've always admired director David Jenkins' work, even when I wasn't in love with the particulars, but this production illuminates his particular brand of brilliance. This is tricky material, and he's clearly taken Mac's advice to heart, deftly walking a tightrope with absurdity on one side and realism on the other. His version of Mac's play manifests itself as an eloquent balancing act.
Onstage, the parental unit — although you can't really define them as such, as Arnie (Ned Averill-Snell) and Paige (Roxanne Fay) aren't exactly in a loving relationship — are polar opposites. He's abused her his whole life, punishing her (and their children) for his white maleness no longer being enough to guarantee him success. As a reward, he sits, post-stroke, urinating on himself, moaning and trying to flee whilst dressed in a nightie, clown wig and clown makeup; in contrast, Paige sucks in her new life, vibrating like an exposed wire and almost flitting about onstage like a butterfly delighted to find she's no longer a caterpillar.
These two theater icons turn in spectacular performances, from Averill-Snell grabbing his penis as a sort of heteronormative security blanket to Fay squirting him and scolding him for grabbing aforementioned penis. Fay's energy practically bounces off the back wall of the Shimberg, dragging her all-too-willing castmates along for the delightful ride. Averill-Snell, for his part, never utters an actual word — he mostly mumbles and whimpers and yes, grabs his penis. And he's masterful — you try mumbling and whimpering and grabbing your penis for two hours straight while chaos erupts around you.
Now, as for the children — Max (Salem Brophy) and Isaac (Robert Spence Gabriel): Jobsite cast well. With a small cast, it would have been easy to let Fay and Averill-Snell dominate the show, but Brophy and Gabriel are right there with them, every bit their equals. Max might, at first blush, seem the most troubled — I mean, come on, abused teenager living in squalor and also transitioning to a gay man? — but in reality, Max has most of it worked out, and what ze doesn't, ze's OK with, because, well, teenagers have that kind of blissful silliness about them. Isaac, however, has seen some things — and he's not in love with what he's seeing at home, either. By the end of the play, you wonder if, perhaps, it's more his story than you thought two hours earlier. There's no shortage of subtext and backstory for either actor to work with, and both young actors turn in dazzling performances, from Isaac's comical entrance to the not-even-a-little-funny ending for the two siblings.
As I said, everything about this show is on point: Katrina Stevenson's costumes (especially Paige's blue polka-dot dress) are the best of any I've seen for this show (usually Paige is costumed frumpier, but the vibrant blue dress makes her more likable and alive, I think); Ryan Finzelber's set design both mimics what Mac set forth in other productions and shows a deeper understanding — former productions had too nice a house; Mac paints the picture of a house that wasn't supposed to last very long, and that's the set Finzelber's built (the Alan Cumming book on the fridge is also a lovely touch).
There's so much to say about this show, so many funny and tender and painful bits, but rather than me explain them, please go see for yourself. See how Max and Isaac work brotherhood; see how Isaac may become his father; see how Paige mothers both her children and takes her power back from Arnie. Oh, and lest you think you're going to spend two hours laughing at PTSD, abusive fathers and disabled and trans people, no. Yes, there's a lot of laughter, but Mac packs a lot of commentary — subtle as it feels with this production — into that comedy. And it doesn't end on a comedic note, nor should it, because if all we do for two hours is laugh at tragedy, well, that doesn't say great things about us, does it?
Don't worry, though — when the play takes a turn, we're ready for the laughter to stop, because the story here isn't about laughter or pain.
It's about both, and Jobsite has conveyed that perfectly.
Cathy Salustri is the arts + entertainment editor for Creative Loafing Tampa. Contact her here.