I felt a mix of reluctance and excitement when I settled into my seat for Pig Iron Theatre’s Zero Cost House for the Friday 2 p.m. show. I had been warned about the negative reviews the show had been garnering, and upon arrival, I learned that the show was to be 1 hour and 45 minutes without an intermission. No bathroom breaks, no beverage on a hot day (incidentally, you can bring one in but no one was working concessions), and no chance to process and discuss during a pause in the performance.
But the play was so very accessible, despite the presence of adults in bunny costumes, that I couldn’t figure out what all the pre-show fuss was about. (In Jay Handelman’s review, he said half the audience walked out of the first performance). The playwright, Toshiki Okada (played at the beginning of the play by director Dito Van Reigersberg) introduced the play to us and told us about his interdisciplinary approach to the development of his work. We learned that he has become a very acclaimed playwright and has been described as “brimming with confidence.” But he took us back to a time (performed by Shavon Norris as a younger version of Okada) when he found it difficult to describe either his work or why he liked to write plays. As a young person just out of college he worked a part-time job earning enough to live and affording him time to write, to compulsively read Thoreau’s Walden repeatedly, and to listen exclusively to Björk’s second album. While we learn about Okada, we are also introduced to characters he creates in his work, including the aforementioned bunnies, who were actually your average middle-class bohemian couple reading the paper to decide what to buy, frustrated with their respective in-laws’ inability to understand them. As things get going, Okada is soon confronted by Thoreau himself, interested to learn why Okada likes Walden so much. Okada, who is now a successful playwright, has trouble articulating why he was once so moved by Walden‘s message of the majesty of getting off the grid and living simply without dependence on elites to provide you with what you need. Okada shops at Patagonia and has no interest in camping, declaring himself a fully indoor person.
This tension leads us to the trajectory of the play: Do we fall in love with the words of Thoreau and Emerson, who teach us the virtues of self-reliance when we are young and carefree, only to turn our backs on these heroes of American literature when we want a house and kids and nice stuff from Crate and Barrel? Okada seemed to have romanticized American culture, assuming we all live in a sustainable world, basing his understanding of American culture on his reading and interpretation of Walden. But I also thought about the fact that we trap our favorite writers in their own words, because their writing is a time capsule of how they were feeling at the time they wrote their most famous work. Would Thoreau bristle to be spotted hanging out in a coffee shop when we expect to find him in a cabin in the woods? Later in the play, Okada buys Thoreau an insulated neck-warmer from Patagonia, which he dismisses, but decides to wear anyway. After all, it’s cold in the woods.
After lacking a clear connection to his hero Thoreau in his late thirties, which his manager (played brilliantly by Mary McCool) tells him comes through in his writing, Okada has an awakening in 2011 following the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that took place in Japan. Once again, he heard the call of Walden beckoning him to live off the grid and escape potential radiation poisoning. Okada introduces us to the “anti-architect” Kyohei Sakaguchi (played by a hilarious James Sugg), who inspired him to move to a tiny village far from Tokyo. Sakaguchi is the real-life author of Zero Yen Houses, in which he describes how a person can live rent-free in a sustainable makeshift home with a solar panel providing heat and five hours of TV. Yet, despite his new sense of purpose, Okada and his manager argue over whether his socially-conscious playwriting will ultimately destroy his art.
Although the play meanders a bit from life-size bunnies to a Japanese Easy Rider, and the characters are largely played interchangeably by a tremendous ensemble of actors, it is an amazing ride with a likable and relatable playwright. I’m sure many of us have struggled with a desire to live free of societal obligations while at the same time falling prey to our consumer culture, which tells us we need everything bigger, better and faster. With a massive economic decline and widespread poverty in our country and abroad, Okada’s message about the call of Walden‘s premises seems particularly relevant today. Yet, he reminds us of how difficult it is to give up all the accommodations of modern life to which we have grown accustomed. Perhaps that is why, as enthralling as his message is (and as Thoreau says early in the play), no one is reading Walden.
For tickets to the final local performance of Zero Cost House, go to the RIAF website.