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BWW Review: A Fantastic and Profound ZERO COST HOUSE by Pig Iron Theatre


A revival presented in a livestreamed Zoom experience

BWW Review: A Fantastic and Profound ZERO COST HOUSE by Pig Iron Theatre

Sometimes you just have to let a play wash over you. Not try to ride the waves and steer your way through. Just let whatever happen. Zero Cost House is one such experience. The oceanic volume of big picture themes and insightfully sharp details cannot be controlled by the viewer. Toshiki Okada's play does not let you be in control.

In 2011, this playwright began a collaboration with Philadelphia's Pig Iron Theatre on an adaptation of Thoreau's seminal Walden. Then the Fukushima meltdown happened. Mr. Okada changed course and his resulting work is not only a nostalgic trip to a more simpler time but also a political memoir. The Japanese government is held to account for its handling of the tragedy. In our time of COVID-19, the parallels to any government's inaction during a crisis make for an easy parallel to draw.

The structure of the play is loopy, twisty and bendy. Cast members play multiple roles and share multiple parts. Time moves forward and backward repeatedly. Linear this is not. Director Dan Rothenberg beautifully orchestrates all of this action and philosophizing. The Zoom experience proves to be a perfect presentation vehicle. If you like big, weighty themes delivered through fascinating and unusual scenes by an exceptionally strong creative team, then Zero Cost House is a must-see.

You will find deadpan humor. Past Okada (Aigner Mizzelle), the playwright's younger self is writing a play but doesn't know what's next. Current Okada (Dito van Reigersberg), another character tells his youthful version, "this is a common problem with writer's block." There is playful humor such as when Thoreau is asked if he googles himself. The answer? "Yeah, everyday."

The juxtaposition of writing a play about oneself at different ages is just one of many conceits. The younger Okada is thoroughly obsessed with Thoreau's book and the messages of a simple life and living in nature. The playwright brings in Kyohei Sakaguchi (Will Brill, fantastic) into this work as a modern day Thoreau (Alex Torra). He is famous for his Zero Yen Project which involves the study of structures built at no cost, such as shanties made by the homeless. In their own times and ways, both thinkers advocate for the simpler life.

Philosophical ideas burst forth frequently during this two hour play. "I didn't want to waste my life in a company to follow the rules made by society." Or, "I want to be rich with time." Immature people need to pretend they are arrogant. To which the playwright notes, "unfortunately I am unfathomably far away from this kind of naivete."

Adding into this heady stew is the writer's agent (Mary McCool), a rabbit couple (Saori Tsukada), a Björk cover band and assorted visuals. To say this is meta doesn't quite capture it. It's mega-meta. The clarity of the storytelling is astonishing. One character says that they are "peeling myself away from the layer of the ordinary." You can do the same by catching this extraordinary production.

Reflecting on the creativity required to both write and present this play was an additional bonus. The words are laden with details worth hearing. Watch the actors fully inhabit these people with memorable facial expressions and movement. The presentation of visual effects and miniatures by Maiko Matsushima adds to the fun. Missing live theater? Zero Cost House might convince you otherwise.

Take the time to go visit Walden again or for the first time. Breathe in the fine air. Catch a fish for dinner. Think. About yourself, life and your purpose in the world. This play stopped me in my tracks and washed over me like the tsunami which hit Japan and caused the 2011 crisis. Watching it, I felt adrift but excited. With a rescuer as surefooted as Mr. Okada, the times are a-changing for the better.

Pig Iron Theatre has another livestream Zoom presentation of Zero Cost House scheduled for Friday, September 25th.

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From This Author Joe Lombardi