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