Posted by: strugglesome | September 29, 2012

Forty Acres and a Mule: Pig Iron Theatre Company’s Zero Cost House

I should preface this by saying that unlike many Americans, I actually have read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. I don’t say that to be arrogant, or impress you with my widespread knowledge. I simply say that because I know that most of us don’t read this book, it’s not exactly a part of our current collective consciousness. I read this book as a part of a program I did as a 16 year old and it has stayed with me ever since. Not because it was so revolutionary and significant to me, though I have never forgotten the advice to “live deliberately” (which…you can get from the very first line, so you don’t really need to go further if you don’t have a lot of time…), but because it was at both so sincere and so pretentious that it struck me as rather amazing. I remember distinctly that there is a passage where he, Thoreau, has been a wandering as he is wont to do, and discovers a pine tree, in bloom! Which is amazing. Because pine trees don’t bloom. They don’t have blossoms. That’s just science.

But never mind the facts, Walden is in many ways an inspirational handbook for living outside the oppression and dictates of polite society. And it was, at one point, a very influential book for Toshiki Okada, a Japanese artist who is one in a long line of collaborators to create a piece, Zero Cost House, with Philadelphia’s own Pig Iron Theatre Company. But for a company with such a strong performance history, it’s amazing how malleable Pig Iron can be. This collaboration is more Okada, one assumes, then Pig Iron, it’s a wordy yet quiet behemoth awash with pauses, direct audience address and lengthy self-contemplation. Which can be useful for an artist, but isn’t always fascinating for its audience.

The seeds of this story are affecting, interesting and true. As an adult, Okada, who is played by a variety of actors over the course of the show and who wrote this play, considers his younger self, first inhabited by Shavon Norris, a shlubby kid in a nothing job that gives him just enough money to eat and sleep. And yet he’s happy, and he’s obsessed with Walden. 15 years later he finds that this book, which he read and re-read as a bright young thing, is no longer so relevant to him, in fact, quite a bit of it rings false to him, or self-indulgent, or just irrelevant. What happened between then and now to defeat this powerful influence in his life? Okada doesn’t consider this in a literal sense, but ponders it in an abstract way, considering elements of the book itself (inhabited at certain points by Mary McCool and James Sugg as rabbit-people, I don’t know, maybe it makes sense in Japanese), the reved-up rambling sermons of fellow artist Kyohei Sakaguchi (played with Mick Jagger like abandon and manic funny energy) and the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

In theory this piece is a meditation on the things that mark our lives, the sense of loss we feel when they become unimportant to us as time goes by, and the shock of recognition but also alienation when a new circumstance in our lives makes us confront those things again, in new and startling ways.The tragedy of this lies in the circumstance of the renewed acquaintance, i.e. Okada returns to Walden, fleeing Tokyo itself, because he has been forced to, or because he feels that Tokyo is no longer a viable option and so perhaps Thoreau was right all along. How frustrating it is to grow out of something, a philosophy or a pair of shoes, and then turn back to it and find it fits you once again. Are we cyclical?

Certainly this play is. Which isn’t a bad things, necessarily, as it’s wandering content dictates its meandering form. And the content itself, at its roots, is a fascinating one. With Alex Torra and Dito Van Reigersberg (who is, on a personal level, my favorite Okada impersonator; Van Reigersberg is so warm and trustworthy that even when we don’t know what’s happening we lean forward to listen to him) rounding out the cast, the actors are all able and willing to discharging this rumination on youth and experience, change and influence, loss of manifesto and regaining of manifesto. But the snail’s pace at which it progresses, along with Okada’s plodding and self-aggrandizing prose, gives us a long conversation with no sense of an ending and no real event. Because the nature of the story is one of remembering rather than real-time, we are automatically distanced from the work by time and space, layering the remove of the form upon the remove of the content upon the remove of the convention of theater itself. That’s too many steps. Because we feel so far away from this piece we don’t desire a connection with it, even though avenues of connection exist. There are many ways we could enter this work, but it’s nature is such that we observe it, briefly, from a distance, before moving on to other pursuits. Much like Okada himself, as it happens.

Mimi Lien’s set design is as functional and effective as a Muji Story, efficient and compact without extraneous elements or any real character. Coupled with Kimitha Cashin’s props and Peter West’s lighting design, and Katie Down’s minimal sound, the air is one of restraint and elegance, it’s a modern and useful structure, much like the “zero cost house” that serves as this plays title and an important moment in Sakaguchi’s life. And Dan Rothenberg’s direction, well, it might as well be non-existent for all we feel his influence on this project.

It’s so dominated by another consciousness, another goal and another sensibility that its almost devoid of physical action. Playwrights are, by their nature, controlling. They create the world of the play, everyone else just tries to find a way to live in it. But when that control is destructive, well, it’s a train off it’s rails. And as slow-moving as this particular train is, it’s still going, still moving, still plugging along at its weak goals.

Zero Cost House has ceased it’s run in Philadelphia, but it will be running in New York in January.


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