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Wednesday, 12 July 2017 22:19

Review: "HIR" at Steppenwolf Theatre

With “HIR” by Taylor Mac, Steppenwolf Theatre continues its legacy of pushing relevant and sometimes uncomfortable topics onto its audiences. Directed by Hallie Gordon, this is the Chicago premiere of Mac’s acclaimed 2015 Off-Broadway hit. This vivid production is sure to unsettle some subscribers, but that’s the point. Mac’s script offers up laughs and lessons and is able to gets its point across without coming off as preachy.

What a treat it is to see ensemble member Amy Morton back on the Steppenwolf stage. Morton is a frequent director at the Steppenwolf but has been scarce since her much-praised performance as Martha in 2010’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” which transferred to Broadway. Morton plays Page, the mother of a transgender teen, Max (Em Grosland) and recently discharged soldier Isaac (Ty Olwin). She is also caring for her ailing husband (Francis Guinan) who has been incapacitated by a stroke. Page has unusual ideas about politics and lifestyle and is finally able to express herself the way she wants without an oppressive husband and societal restrictions.

Playwright, performer and singer-songwriter Taylor Mac (otherwise known as “judy”) is hot right now. His one-man “24-Decade History of Popular Music” was shortlisted for the 2017 Pulitzer. There’s no one quite like judy. HIR is essentially a fictionalized thesis on gender and politics in America. Guinan’s feeble character represents the fragile white male ego and Morton’s character is the at-times militant voice of the future. That future is without gender, without color, and without boundaries. Page seems to relish in abusing her once violent husband. An apt metaphor. Mac has a great sense of humor about the LGBT community and that shines through, but his script is also dense with a vital cultural insight that suburban audiences need to hear in the age of Trump’s America.

Hallie Gordon’s vision for this show is spectacular. Collette Pollard has created a fitting set for the chaos of this family. Gordon’s cast is top-tier. You can’t do much better than Amy Morton and Francis Guinan. Morton quickly becomes the focal point of the play and displays an overwhelming capacity for physical comedy and emotional honesty. You can’t take your eyes off her. Guinan is extremely brave to tread the boards in nothing more than adult diaper, or even braver, a full-face of clown makeup. Without uttering more than a few intelligible sentences, Guinan turns in a complicated but moving performance. This is likely to be one of the most talked about shows in Chicago, and good for the Steppenwolf for continuing to take risks.

Through August 20 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. 1650 N Halsted Street. 312-335-3830 www.steppenwolf.org

 

Published in Theatre in Review

“Late Company” is the fairly literal title of a new play by Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill. Presented by COR Theatre, Jessica Fisch directs the regional premiere at Pride Arts Center. The 80-minute play is a response to the uptick in teen suicides triggered by cyberbullying.

“Late Company” takes on the weighty issue of LGBT teen suicide. The play begins with political couple Michael (Paul Fagen) and Debora (Tosha Fowler) setting up for some dinner guests. Over the course of their cryptic conversation, we glean that their son has killed himself and the dinner guests are the parents of the bully they blame for their son’s suicide.

The implausibility of the situation is troubling. It’s hard to imagine that a grieving family would cordially invite over the parents of the bully they blame for the loss of their son. It’s even harder to imagine anyone taking that invitation. What transpires over the course of 80 minutes is a structurally unsound one-liner competition. Some highlights include “you were always more interested in the spin, than the spin cycle.”

This is not a play without heart. This is a play without a clear message. While most of us can generally agree that suicide is a heartbreaking thing to happen to any loved one, this play treats it as nearly incidental. The playwright struggles to flesh out a clear central argument. These characters are rarely having conversations, sometimes they’re just reading letters to each other. Great plays are exchanges of revelatory dialogue in which bigger issues are addressed. “Late Company” stays so specific to its own characters that it rarely acknowledges the outside world.

Tannahill’s play is ambitious and maybe more remarkable in other productions. The storyline is very relevant and has the opportunity to say much more than it does in its current form. There’s a lot to discuss on this topic and plenty of work still to do to prevent teen suicide. The playwright would be wise to dig a little deeper than anger in order to express that moral.

At COR Theatre through July 16th at Pride Arts Center. 4147 N Broadway St

 

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