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Funny, riveting gender-bender is ‘best play’ in years

Amidst the massive clutter of their home and lives, transgender Max (Jax Jackson) and Paige (Nancy Opel), his mother, mirror one another in “Hir.” Photo: Jennifer Reiley.
Amidst the massive clutter of their home and lives, transgender Max (Jax Jackson) and Paige (Nancy Opel), his mother, mirror one another in “Hir.” Photo: Jennifer Reiley.


“Hir,” a gender-bending, tragicomic world premiere at the Magic Theatre, is the best Bay Area play I’ve seen this season.

In several seasons, in fact.

And I’ve attended more than a few magnificent shows during that timeframe.

To call “Hir” hilariously riveting would be to understate enormously the impact it had on the opening night San Francisco audience.

Including me.

I don’t have enough superlatives in my word-arsenal with which to praise the writing, direction, acting, set design and costumes.

Describing what’s what may make the play sound bizarre rather than funny. But playwright Taylor Mac keeps the laughter level extremely high.

Niegel Smith is the perfect director for what Mac calls “absurd realism.” Though every gag line draws a laugh, each stammer, brief pause or elongated silence also hits a dramatic bulls-eye.

And Smith’s pacing is spot on.

Paige is the antithesis of the submissive mom that populates so much pop culture. Instead, she’s a tear-down-the-established-routine demon who humiliates her husband with acts of comeuppance that include squirting water into his face as a trainer might to a disobedient kitten.

Nancy Opel portrays her with all the requisite venom. A Tony-nominated actress, she is a comic delight, spewing Mac’s acerbic words like ammo from a Gatling gun.

She informs us the family’s role now — 30 years after building its “starter house” — is to put on shadow-puppet shows and “play dress up.”

The playwright takes dysfunctionality to new heights. Or, perhaps, it might be more accurate to say new lows.

The play, set in a central valley suburb similar to Stockton, where Mac grew up, makes the audience feel good because their fractured families can’t possibly be that screwed up.

Jax Jackson adroitly plays Max, formerly Maxine — a 17-year-old “gender-queer” malcontent who’s been homeschooled and makes Holden Caulfield’s angst look as antiquated and simplistic as something out of a the old-time radio soap opera “One Man’s Family.”

He no longer chooses to be a she or a he but a gender-neutral ze (pronounced zay); in addition, he substitutes hir (pronounced heer) for the pronouns him or her.

A youth whose fantasy is to join an anarchist commune, Max finds his mind somewhere behind the curve of the hormone-triggered gender changes ze has put hir body through with self-medicating experimentation.

He calls himself “transmasculine” and “a fag.” He likes boys. He loves masturbating.

And he thinks he’s “allowed to be selfish because I’m in transition.”

Max goes ballistic about the biblical story of Noah being “transphobic” because only male and female animals were allowed aboard the ark — and because Leonardo da Vinci’s transexuality and that of his self-portrait, the Mona Lisa, aren’t acknowledged.

Actually, it’s not crucial for a theatergoer to “get” all the gender-based phrasing — or even the alphabet soup LGBT has evolved into, LGBTTSQQIAA.

The gist becomes clear through context.

Clear, too, is Mark Anderson Phillips’s performance despite his character barely speaking.

He skillfully portrays Arnold, the stroke-ridden ex-plumber, ex-abuser father who represents a disintegrating culture and who’s typically plopped in front of the Lifetime Channel when Paige and Max go out.

And Ben Euphrat is effectively transparent as Isaac, a Marine vet of the Afghanistan war dishonorably discharged after becoming a meth addict. He may have PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), and vomits profusely, the aftermath of his job of collecting body parts.

Isaac comes back to unrecognizable home and family, and desperately wants to restore them — and himself — to the way everything was when he left.

I missed “The Lily’s Revenge,” Mac’s earlier allegorical play/carnival at the Magic, thinking neither my brain nor my buttocks could handle five acts and five hours no matter how brilliant.

Now I have regrets.

Mac, not incidentally, is a triple threat: Although he’s written 16 full-length plays, he also performs as an actor and singer-songwriter (his most recent outing was as co-star with Mandy Patinkin in an off-Broadway workshop of “The Last Two People on Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville” last December).

While introducing his latest dark, darker, darkest humor showcase to the opening night audience, Loretta Greco, the Magic’s producing artistic director, said, “Buckle your seat belts. You’re in for an incredible ride.”

She wasn’t lying.

“Hir” plays at the Magic Theater, Building D, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco, through March 2. Performances: Sundays and Tuesdays, 7 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; matinees, Sundays and Wednesdays, 2:30 p.m. Tickets: $15 to $60. Information: (415) 441-8822 or www.magictheatre.org.

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