Emily Guendelsberger Emily is City Paper's arts editor. She enjoys writing about feminism, opera, television, arts ecosystems, music theory, people with weird jobs and pretty much everything involving money. You can also find her writing at the A.V. Club and other fine publications.
Every year, there's hundreds and hundreds of performances at the , and unless it's one of the big shows, it's sometimes hard to tell what you're going to get. Here at Critical Mass we're sending writers to as many shows as we possibly can for 75 pocket-sized reviews over the course of the fest. Check back in with us at every day for real talk on what these things actually are!
GROUP: Pig Iron Theatre Company
ATTENDED: Thu., Sept. 13, 7 p.m.
CLOSES: Sat., Sept 22
BRIEF SELF-DESCRIPTION: Bring Toshiki Okada’s sly, personal, and idiosyncratic writing together with Pig Iron’s raucous performance spirit, and you have Zero Cost House, a time- and space-bending autobiographical production about drastic relocations, rereading Walden, remaking government, and the freedom and heaviness of that moment when what’s impossible becomes concrete.
WE THINK: I went in with high expectations — my experiences with Pig Iron haven't just been good, they've been "holy crap, that was the best production of Shakespeare I have ever seen" (as in last year's Twelfth Night) or something equally hand-flappy every single time. But Zero Cost House, an autobiographical sort of thing developed with Pig Iron by Japanese experimental playwright Toshiki Okada, isn't nearly as accessible as their previous source material. There's an interesting theme of recurrence with slight change, with moments and themes cycling back into the play in slightly different forms. For example: Both idealist, 23-year-old Okada and middle-aged, successful Okada are characters. Young Okada loves Thoreau's Walden and talks about it a lot in the first act; in the third act, Thoreau's ideas of cities as inherently toxic places come back in the form of Current Okada's paranoia about radiation poisoning if he stays in Tokyo after the Fukushima disaster. This sort of callback occurs in everything from music cues to throwaway lines to characters to big themes.
Further on this idea of cycles, each of the five actors slowly goes on a round-robin circuit through several characters over the play's three acts (every actor has a turn as Current Okada, for example). These shifts don't necessarily line up with a costume change or even the actor leaving the stage, which is interesting, and not confusing to follow, exactly. But I was a little disappointed that director Dan Rothenberg didn't give the audience a little more help following along by getting the ensemble's actors to be a little more consistent on each character's body language and speech mannerisms, as those are often the only thing the audience has to go on.
Instead, for example, Dito Van Reigersberg, as the first Current Okada, establishes the character as having some nervous hand movements and a slight stammer; as the character passes between actors, these come back to various degrees, but it definitely doesn't feel like the character is a discrete spirit, hopping from body to body. Young Okada, also passed around a few times, has hardly anything physical to distinguish himself as a character other than "usually sitting at a desk and writing." The audience is left sometimes trying figuring out who each actor solely by the context of what he or she is saying, which can start feeling like you're being forced to play a shell game. With that and the mystery of why people onstage occasionally get stuck in loops of movement, and playing "spot the recurrent idea," it's less like being sucked into the friendly world of Twelfth Night or Cankerblossom and more like trying to figure out a puzzle for a couple hours.
This didn't drive me as nuts . I can't say I've never been irritated when some acclaimed Live Arts production turns out to be embarrassingly pretentious and self-congratulatory (my shorthand among friends for this type of bummer is "a Ten-Minute Abraham Lincoln Hand Job," from a 2008 show that remains the only live-theater performance I've ever walked out of at intermission). But usually, the anger comes from a feeling of being tricked — like, "This play pretended like it had something of substance to say, and I feel foolish for trusting it now that it turns out to be all smoke and mirrors and empty shock." However, I very much didn't get the impression there was nothing going on underneath Zero Cost House — I just think there's so many variables involved that it might not all be getting across in one two-hour sitting.
(Incidentally, the weird promo photos with the small Asian child and the people in giant animal mascot heads have nothing to do with the production, other than an apparent play-within-a-play starring suburban bunnies, in full bunny suits, that is being acted out as Young Okada writes it. From what I've heard, Pig Iron only got the final script for Zero Cost House a couple weeks before it opened, which makes a lot of sense with those photos and a lot of other things about the production, too.)
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