On the evidence of Pig Iron Theatre Company’s Zoom production, noted Japanese playwright Toshiki Okada’s autobiographical Zero Cost House is an ambitious but unfocused piece of meta-theater that never quite gels. Eschewing theater’s usual distilled artifice, the play depicts in abstract style the disjointed perambulations of a real human life – that of the playwright himself.
The production is a superb example of how the digital technology we’re currently forced to use can be well employed in storytelling. Here, though, the storytelling itself isn’t a superb example of anything much.
The play recounts in a listless and roundabout way how Okada’s early obsession with Thoreau’s Walden influenced his life and career. We encounter the playwright at two stages of his life – the present day (actually some time shortly after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster) and 15 years before – and played by multiple actors. He meets Thoreau himself in what I would call a fantasy sequence if the whole thing weren’t in a more-or-less fantasy mode.
Later, as Fukushima turns life upside down for so many Japanese, Okada encounters another real-life character, the charismatic architect Kyohei Sakaguchi, known for his studies of structures built at no cost, such as shanties constructed by the homeless. Sakaguchi calls this work the Zero Yen Project, hence the play’s title. Here, he’s a political rebel who inspires Okada to leave Tokyo for Japan’s safer hinterlands. His tiny cost-free homes are descendants of Thoreau’s cabin, in a way. But I struggle to find significant meaning in this.
Most important, the play doesn’t make us care about Okada. The Fukushima disaster evokes memories of 9-11 and resonates with the coronavirus pandemic of today, but I’m hard put to identify what it might be saying about the lives of artists confronted with unfathomable crisis.
Sakaguchi’s colorful portrayal (by Will Brill) drew me in, but only to make me wish this were his story and not Okada’s. The playwright remains elusive, in spite of, or because of, the variety of faces that depict the different stages and aspects of his life.
In a deeper way, I wished the production’s adept deployment of Zoom technology was in the service of material that had pace and focus. The technical transitions are smooth, the timing sharp (though deliberate), the use of three-dimensional space creative, the panel action eye-catching and evocative. The actors turn in solid performances, which I find especially admirable since they don’t have one another to play off of in physical space. I kept rooting for the script to give them more to settle and bite into. It never came.
Zero Cost House is worth a look as a demo of how far Zoom performance and production technique has come in just a few months. I wish I could say more than that to recommend it. There’s one more performance, Sept. 25 at 8 p.m EDT. Visit the website for more information. Tickets are available here.