At the end of Piehole‘s Old Paper Houses, doll-sized cardboard buildings lie strewn about the stage, wreckage of a utopian community’s dreams. It’s a fitting reflection of the show itself. Director Tara Ahmadinejad, Head Writer Jessie Renee Hopkins, and the energetic Piehole company serve up an everything-into-the-pot jumble of words, ideas, and set pieces derived from history, imagination, and the writings of poet Bernadette Mayer. Some of these elements are telling and well-told, but shapelessness, excess, and poor pacing undermine the moments of illumination and cleverness.
It’s a pity because the stageworthy aspects have the power to both amuse and enlighten. The archly funny opening sequence gives us the grim lives of snowed-in New Englanders, endlessly shoveling, predicting the next Nor’easter, gossiping, losing their phone service, and leaping excitedly at the all-too-brief daylight as it crosses the stage each day (a large yellow balloon performing that trick nicely).
Aside from its New England setting, though, this extended prologue doesn’t seem connected to the two longer sequences that follow, and these contain the meat of the show. First we’re given the historical utopian community of Brook Farm, its inhabitants bathed in sunny idealism that turns to disillusionment and frustration (including the repeated failure of Ralph Waldo Emerson to show up as promised). Though not smoothly paced, this segment boasts inventive staging and snappy performances that make it enjoyable.
It’s in the final, much-too-long section that the lack of a firm shaping hand becomes fatal. Here we have a modern-day equivalent of Brook Farm, set in a fictionalized version of Lenox, Massachusetts. There’s a communal farm tended by vegetarians. There are multi-purpose communal buildings where the townsfolk make collective decisions. There are historical sites zealously tended by a local historian. There’s a storytelling alley, a house full of witches (benign ones, presumably), and psychedelic mushrooms. All these are made of paper structures and then projected on a backdrop to become full-size “sets” which the characters show us and sometimes even move through. It’s a smart conceit.
Then reality intrudes. What about the homeless veterans roaming the streets – how can the community integrate them? And, inevitably, an authority figure emerges out of the anarchy. Shades of Animal Farm.
The smarts and humor with which this sequence begins persists in emerging periodically. But each point is dragged out for far too long. Just as the townsfolk indulge in every crunchy-granola and New Age lifestyle cliché, the creative team seems to have indulged in every expressive idea they ever had in dreaming up the show. Worst of all, long after the point’s been made, the playroom-like proceedings centered on those paper houses give way to a completely unnecessary and seemingly endless sequence of lectures and reflections explaining and explaining what the company just exhausted itself making absolutely clear: that a community can’t ultimately thrive on pure idealism, not to mention that not everyone is cut out to be a farmer.
Ironically, the show suffers from precisely the problem it highlights in utopian communities: an idealistic collective with lots of talent and admirable ideas fails because of the lack of an objective “adult” spirit to guide, prune, and shape the material. Piehole’s inventive energy shines through the suffocating snows, but some shovels and a plow are desperately needed.
Old Paper Houses continues through March 14 at the historic Irondale Center in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=0674011600][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0811212033]