Gender isn't just bent in the quirky and outrageous world of Taylor Mac. It's also as densely layered and folded as a piece of origami.

The queer performance artist turned playwright has toyed with notions of identity before, notably in "The Lily's Revenge," a five-hour romp that scored a hit at the Magic a few seasons ago. Now, he's back with a vengeance with "Hir," a brave deconstruction of a family drama that slides from bizarre farce to Greek tragedy with audacious velocity. Although the wildly ambitious play doesn't cut close enough to the bone to be truly explosive, it's so bracingly funny and smart that it's easy to overlook the flaws. Tautly directed by Niegel Smith, this world premiere runs through Feb. 23 at the Magic.

Mac is best known as a drag icon on the experimental theater scene, a darling of the avant-garde in New York. But here, he riffs on his childhood, growing up amid the dreary blandness of a tract home in suburban Stockton. This is home as a rubbish heap of Formica, fluorescent lights and desolation (the palpably dingy set is by Alexis Distler) that evokes the haunted landscape of Sam Shepard's "Buried Child" and the ritualized hell of Enda Walsh's "The Walworth Farce."


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A family reunion is a nightmarish business for this lot. Isaac (Ben Euphrat) joined the military because his family had no money for college. When he returns to the old homestead, on the heels of a dishonorable discharge, he finds that his mother, Paige (a fierce Nancy Opel), has turned into a hoarder, sculpting towering heaps of trash all over the house; his sister, Maxine, has become Max (Jax Jackson); and his father, Arnold, (a deeply compelling turn by Mark Anderson Phillips), the once tyrannical king of the castle, has been reduced to a gibbering fool after a debilitating stroke.

At first, it's Max's journey of discovery that steals the family spotlight. He now boldly calls himself "hir," not him or her but something in between. A heady discourse on power, semantics and pronouns ensues. Opel has a field day unleashing a torrent of blistering critiques of traditional gender roles, railing against "troglodyte fascist hetero-normative" culture with great panache. Indeed, there are times when the narrative shortchanges depth for rhetoric, though it's hard to resist the playwright's ecstatic riffs on the liberating nature of paradigm shifts.

Certainly, Mac is quite insightful about how much of identity is pretense and pretend. From tales of transgender fish and anarchic queer communes to the therapeutic qualities of shadow puppetry, "Hir" dissects our voracious need for origin stories. All the members of this cursed family are so committed to their own personal mythologies, the reasons they are who they are, that they are lost to each other.

Although the plot often traffics in the absurd, the psychology of "Hir" is grounded in reality, particularly the gravitational pull of power and how one kind of despot can easily be replaced by another. The twisted relationship between Paige and Arnold is as terrifying as it is ridiculous. Phillips nails the whimper and cry of the helpless, while Opel radiates rage through chipper smiles.

Some of the themes need to be fleshed out more fully, such as the frailty of Isaac's postwar mental state, the roots of Paige's tensions with her son and the family's socio-economic status. The emotional connection between Paige and Max also needs more specificity.

All of that said, "Hir" is a devastatingly dark take on the primal need for a homecoming that's unsettling from start to finish.

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza, and follow her at Twitter.com/karendsouza4.

'Hir'
By Taylor Mac
Through: Feb. 23
Where: Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Building D, San Francisco
Running time: Just over
2 hours, one intermission
Tickets: $20-$60;
415-441-8822.
www.magictheatre.org