Review: "Zero Cost House (for Zoom)" Offers Thoreau-ly Entertaining Deconstruction

Zero Cost House (for Zoom)

Written by Toshiki Okada

Translated by Aya Ogawa

Adapted and directed by Dan Rothenberg

Presented by Pig Iron Theatre Company via Zoom

September 18-25, 2020

Dito van Reigersberg, Alex Torra, and puppets by Maiko Matsushima. Photo by Mary McCool.
The extra-diegetic echo that Pig Iron Theatre Company's first digital presentation, Zero Cost House (for Zoom), includes a natural disaster interrupting development of a play represents precisely the kind of layered resonances that suffuse the play itself. Written by Japanese playwright Toshiki Okada and elegantly staged by Pig Iron, Zero Cost House, reimagined for virtual presentation after a live debut in 2012, playfully and thoughtfully troubles the boundaries of identity as well as the lines between artist and character, autobiography and fiction, and self-presentation and performance.

Divided into three chapters, with a short intermission, Zero Cost House ostensibly tells the story of Okada's attempt to adapt Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854), a vitally important book to his younger self, an endeavor that collides both with the fact that he is now fifteen years removed from the height of his Walden worship and with the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused widespread death and destruction in Japan, including dangerous damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Almost immediately, however, the race- and gender-blind casting, with white actor Dito van Reigersberg playing Current Okada and female BIPOC actor Aigner Mizzelle playing Past Okada, suggests that this production is up to more than straightforward autobiography (if, as it reinforces, there really is such a thing), and that is before Thoreau (Alex Torra, to start with)—a prickly fellow who, it turns out, Googles himself daily— appears and before identities even further lose their stability (you'll want to pay attention to the names on the Zoom windows). 
Alex Torra (arm) and puppets by Maiko Matsushima. Photo by Christina Zani.
In a meta signal to the audience, one of the first things that Past Okada talks about is discomfort with the question of categorizing his plays, and this play certainly functions more through mirrorings, parallels, and reverberations than through conventions of genre. Okada's Manager's (here, Mary McCool) opinion that he should take care because it is dangerous for artists to adopt a heightened sense of social responsibility recalls discussions elsewhere of naivete, arrogance, and privilege regarding Walden. Walden itself, as an autobiographical piece that presents its author in a certain curated way (with an eye towards effecting social change), mirrors the play we are watching, to which the character Kyohei Sakaguchi (Will Brill), whose resistance to easy categorization mirrors that of Okada's plays, also compares his own book, on living for zero cost in the city (and tuning in to other layers of reality and experience). Sakaguchi's comments about Okada's understanding of his own plays suggest that Okada is Sakaguchi's Thoreau, or Thoreau as seen by Current Okada, anyway. Ever-evolving incarnations of a married rabbit couple (brought to life for the most part by Saori Tsukada) provide yet another set of correspondent characters.

When at one point, Okada draws attention to the narrative's fictionality, we can't help but think that his corrective version is still a version, a story, which is an idea that perhaps connects to his realization that his government restricts and distorts information just like those of countries he saw as less free (a feeling presumably shared by many Americans these days). One might also extend this connection to the various questionings of social assumptions, from Thoreau's to Sakaguchi's (the play reminds us that although most people's first thought of Walden is of "Nature," socioeconomic critique is fundamental to the work). At another point, we observe Past Okada theorizing about the future through the hindsight that we have gained from Current Okada. Along with Thoreau, Kerouac, Dylan, and Bjork also make their way into the mix as formative influences, and Okada's relationship as a writer to what is happening in the play sometimes, in terms of English-language classics, is much more Tristram Shandy than it is Walden.
Clockwise from bottom left: Mary McCool, Alex Torra, Will Brill. Photo by Dan Rothenberg.
The pace of Zero Cost House is unhurried, and there is rewarding attention to details like changes to viewing angles and the same tree image appearing in the background of multiple characters. One or more additional Zoom windows are periodically used as one might use a projection screen in in-person theater, displaying images such as a tiny plant being watered with a tiny watering can, footage from the 2011 disaster, or simply colors, patterns, or textures. One image of tiny window frames and a chair being flooded with water evokes not only the 2011 disaster but also Sakaguchi's exhortations to increase our "resolution of thought," provoking consideration of what else we have seen that idea retroactively applies to. Among excellent performances by the whole cast, incidentally, the dynamic between Brill's ardent monologuing as Sakaguchi hijacks this supposed autobiography (think a healthy dose of "counterculture guy who's going to tell you the real truth") and Torra's exasperated reaction as the Manager is particularly and hilariously memorable.

That sense of humor and humanity is evident throughout this play even as it folds in on itself conceptually and thematically, as identities shift, gesturing towards how not only we change but also how art impacts us and how we use it to structure our identities change over time and in response to the world. And the elasticity and metamorphosis of identity in the play themselves gesture to the (potential) changing of that world. Ultimately, Zero Cost House (for Zoom) proves that philosophical curiosity can be both funny and affecting.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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