An Aus­tralian clas­sic and a con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can play are run­ning to­gether so au­di­ences can ponder ‘who are we re­ally?’, writes Victoria Lau­rie

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Stage -

The act of home­com­ing un­leashes a sense of de­light mixed with per­verse ap­pre­hen­sion. Will it all be just the same? And if it is, is that enough? In a new move for the Black Swan State The­atre Com­pany, two plays about home­com­ing are be­ing staged con­cur­rently to in­spire con­ver­sa­tions be­tween au­di­ences ex­it­ing one and en­ter­ing the other.

Black Swan’s artis­tic direc­tor Clare Wat­son has bunched her 2018 sea­son of eight plays into pairs and added dis­cus­sion pan­els and read­ings around them.

The first pairing sees Ray Lawler’s 1950s Aus­tralian love clas­sic Summer of the Sev­en­teenth Doll lined up along­side Hir, a work by New York per­former and play­wright Tay­lor Mac that is de­scribed as a “sub­ver­sive and gen­der-bend­ing Amer­i­can kitchen-sink drama”.

In both plays, men are re­turn­ing home to con­front ir­rev­o­ca­ble and un­com­fort­able change. But if one drama is a slow burn, the other is an in­cen­di­ary de­vice lobbed into the the­atre.

Those with even the vaguest mem­ory of Lawler’s play re­call the rap­tur­ous re­turn over 16 sum­mers of mates Roo and Bar­ney as they head south to en­joy the lay-off months from sea­sonal cane-cut­ting jobs in Queens­land.

In the front par­lour of their work­ing-class ter­race house in Mel­bourne, bar­maid girl­friends Olive and Nancy wait for the boys to walk through the door in an an­nual home­com­ing as keenly an­tic­i­pated as the men’s first bot­tle of beer.

But on this 17th summer, change creeps in. Nancy’s gone and got mar­ried and Pearl’s taken her place. And Roo has news that will loosen Olive’s stub­born grip on a cher­ished rit­ual.

The lay-off is “a time for livin’ ”, she in­sists. “Even waitin’ for Roo is more ex­cit­ing than what other women have got,” she says of her dogged re­jec­tion of “the norms” of mar­riage, mort­gage and do­mes­tic drudgery.

Con­trast this with the bleakly funny home­com­ing in Hir, in which dis­hon­ourably dis­charged sol­dier Isaac re­turns to his mod­est Cal­i­for­nia home from three years in Afghanistan. He en­coun­ters Max, his tomboy sis­ter turned brother, who prefers the gen­der-neu­tral pro­noun “hir” in­stead of him or her. His abu­sive fa­ther, Arnie, is now dis­abled and his mother, Paige, is out for re­venge.

Mac’s sub­ver­sive writ­ing char­ac­terises Paige as a war­rior-tyrant rul­ing the roost. “Max!” yells Paige. “Come out here and ex­plain your gen­der am­bi­gu­ity to your brother.” She dresses her once rant­ing, racist hus­band in women’s castoffs and rouges his face. She even slips oe­stro­gen pills into his daily milk­shake.

Oth­ers have their drug of choice — moody Max hangs around the house and in­jects testos­terone or­dered off the in­ter­net, while Isaac is sus­tained by a heady drug con­coc­tion that leads to the play’s messy de­noue­ment.

Direc­tor Zoe Pep­per, one of the tal­ented young direc­tors se­lected by Wat­son for this year’s sea­son, de­scribes the play as “an un­re­lent­ing trip to the new”. She says Mac has un­plumbed the kitchen-sink fam­ily drama, “strip­ping it for parts to ex­am­ine pa­tri­archy and gen­der flu­id­ity in all its per­mu­ta­tions”.

Pep­per ad­mits to be­ing smit­ten by the re­bel­lious Paige (played by TV’s Wa­ter Rats star Toni Scanlan). “I em­pathise with her de­spite her cru­elty, be­cause she is strug­gling to be more than a prod­uct of the cul­ture she has sur­vived,” she says.

And so is Max, the trans­gen­der child (played by Jack Palit, who iden­ti­fies as trans­gen­der) in whom Paige glimpses a kind of sal­va­tion and hope for a dif­fer­ent fu­ture. If Hir is a por­trait of

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