Theater review: Pig Iron Theatre's ‘Zero Cost House’

You have to follow closely in Pig Iron Theatre Company’s “Zero Cost House,” a collaboration between the Philadelphia-based experimentalists and Japanese writer Toshiki Okada that was on display Friday and Saturday at Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center. The troupe explains certain things in deadpan direct address, but it also features actors taking turns playing Okada. The unorthodox venture, now touring, is billed as Okada’s autobiography, yet it has a lot to do with Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” and Japan after the 2011 tsunami.

The performance style is practically anti-theatrical, with actors stammering and pausing and speaking guilelessly right from an actor’s first tentative question to the audience: “May I begin?” This is the characterization that the troupe has in mind for its writer-subject, Okada. Regardless of which actor plays the writer — and the troupe makes it clear when identities shift — he comes through as uncertain, even when confronting a younger version of himself who more fully subscribed to the “Walden” principles than his present self does.

Okada, it turns out, is a wobbly bridge between two sturdy visionaries: Thoreau, portrayed with a burly cocksureness, and Kyohei Sakaguchi, real-life author of the Japanese book “Zero Yen House” (and played with the zeal of a mind-blown hippie). Apparently in Japan there really are tiny, rudimentary, “Walden”-ish off-the-grid houses, and here they are emblematic of a radical rethinking of our attachments to property, jobs and money. In the play “Zero Cost House,” Sakaguchi is the lively visionary who appears near the end of what has felt like a slow, complicated journey upriver toward some kind of alternative truth.

The “meta” quality of the performance can be funny, as when two rabbits played by actors in the bunny drag of fuzzy ears and feet glance expectantly at the author who is writing their dialogue, waiting to see what they are supposed to do next. It can also be sluggish and even twee, especially when the rabbit figures come out with ukuleles and sing lightly underneath a scene.

No surprise, then, that the form and style of “Zero Cost House” has already rankled critics in Philadelphia and New York. The show can seem to be missing its own most interesting point in dwelling on perceptions and identities at the expense of the pressing “how-we-live-now” issue that unites them.

Circular though the show is, the five-member ensemble (under Dan Rothenberg’s direction) has a super-refined control of their dry, pause-filled style. And the design – not so much the writing desk but the set’s only other major element, a huge wall of plywood that is eventually lifted to become a simple roof – begins, like some of the late dialogue, to pry open those provocative ideas about philosophy, politics and shelter.

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
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