‘Zero Cost House’ at Pig Iron Theatre Company at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center

The Pig Iron Theater Company’s production of Zero Cost House by Japanese playwright Toshiki Okada at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center is a performance you have to follow closely. It is an autobiographical examination of how Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, influenced Okada as a young man, and whose writing of the play coincided with Japan’s earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Indeed, this play will demonstrate that “Walden-ish” principles of living off the grid are more concrete than you think, as Okada’s work reflects how the destruction from a natural disaster seeps more deeply into the population, causing a radical rethinking of how people live, think and work.

Directed by Dan Rothenberg, Zero Cost House opens with Set Designer Mimi Lienutilizing a meager writing desk, a lamp, some chairs, a pile of ash with toys in it, and a huge wall of plywood as props. Here, the actors take turns playing Okada, where it’s a combination of meandering dialog and a series of stops and stops as an actor poses the first tentative question to the audience: “May I begin?” Even as this style of address is on-going, the talented cast: Mary McCool, James Sugg, Alex Torra and Dito van Reigersberg translate their intent as they characterize Okada, even prompting the audience to interact by asking them questions. You have to wonder at the moments when no dialog is going on – something very atypical of conventional theater. Yet, this is an effective tool by the actors to seamlessly shift as if nothing ever happened. The silence may be awkward at first, but the actors are confident in their approach–much like breathing air or going to the next note of music—while clearly informing the audience as they make their transitions.

The play is divided into three parts. The first centers on the early years as Okada struggles to tell the audience that he doesn’t do conventional theater – it’s more experimental. Uneasy presenting himself, Okada refers to himself as a spirited writer. As the actors portray the younger Okada, they tell of a man who relentlessly seeks time and solitude, where it also parallels Thoreau’s Walden. Okada reflects on his years after college when he was working part-time in a meaningless job, paying for rent and food, all while trying to carve out time to read books and write. It seems contrarian when he says he was okay with his station in life. Yet, when the younger Okada is questioned what his plays are about and what he’s writing, he seems lost for answers. When he finally replies, he stresses that it is important to be transparent in what you’re writing about.

Toshiki Okada at work. Photo courtesy of Pig Iron Theatre Company.
Toshiki Okada at work. Photo courtesy of Pig Iron Theatre Company.

Interestingly, as Okada hangs back, two actors appear as rabbits (a prevalent theme throughout the production), it is a family that is discussing their son and the heavy-handedness of the in-laws with toys and other material things. Okada said constantly re-reading Walden helped ground him and literally save him, and that the simplest act of working people—the laborer—meant the highest form of independence: to live simply and wisely and free from constraints after he did his job. Okada then goes on to explain how the book became the source material for the collaboration of this play.

Okada experiences a lengthy—and terse—exchange with the brash and cocky author Thoreau. While Okada is reverent and uncertain, Thoreau’s character dishes it out with gusto, surprised at Okada’s reaction that he didn’t fully embrace the concept of nature. Yet, the younger Okada isn’t ashamed to admit that maybe Walden didn’t impact him as much as he thought. After all, he doesn’t really have any driving ambition to be a successful playwright, but merely adapt to the societal norms of working, living, and getting by.

Again, a recurring theme for the younger Okada is the notion of time: he craves it but simply cannot find it  He worries that in the future he might not find the solitude that Thoreau craved, or that the book would no longer hold its importance; Yet Thoreau is an intrusion upon the lives of people, forcing them to think differently. Would the people resent him for his minimalist attitude, or were they uncertain that this, too, would become a way of life?

In writing the play, Okada wanted to collaborate with experimental architect, Kyohei Sakaguchi, whose photo essay Zero Yen House showed the ingenuity of the homeless people who dwelled in Tokyo along the banks of the Sumida River. Sakaguchi definitely embraces an alternative government and living off the grid. He grills Okada over the materialism of his job, making money, etc. In his view, this was a big waste of time. After all, a part of Japanese government-granted right is healthy and cultural living, and it’s not so bad to live minimally—but creatively. Living off the land, living without paying taxes or the other daily mundane expenses that plague people is exhausting, is Sakaguchi’s mantra.

As the play transitions to the second part and the unwelcome arrival of Thoreau into the lives of people during the impending storm, the play delivers a conversation of uncomfortable topics such as living off the grid and making the most of what the land has to offer. While it makes sense to some, it creates discomfort in others  As Okada tells Thoreau of the events in 2011, the third part of the play, Okada admits that he emerges unscathed and unaffected  Has life become Tokyo-centric, in that the world of Japan revolves around the major city? Those close to Okada question whether Okada has become arrogant—or dangerous—because Okada claims that for the betterment of the world, you have to be arrogant—you try to become a shelter.

Photo courtesy of Pig Iron Theatre Company.
Photo courtesy of Pig Iron Theatre Company.

The life of the people following the tsunami and earthquake revolves around Twitter and the concern of radiation to the people and the land.It was irritating to think about what life would be like living off the land according to Thoreau. While Okada tries to explain Sakaguchi’s theories of zero-yen living, a recording of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changing” and Jack Kerouac’s “Beat Generation” concepts seep into the human consciousness as Thoreau’s work once again takes center stage in Okada’s life.Sakaguchi wants people to live through a new layer of freedom, to start a new government and way of thinking. His Twitter followers are his new citizens. Okada moves away from Tokyo-centrism, embracing Walden and going back to the basics.

Kudos to the design team for their effective work: Set Designer Mimi Lien;Lighting Designer Peter West;Costume Designer: Maiko Matsushima; Sound Designer: Katie Down and Associate Sound Designer: Mikaal Sulaima.

Zero Cost House is a complex and brilliant play, which really makes you think loud and hard about priorities and everyday living. It is okay to live off the grid, and not just being free from a house or bills or other things that affect life? It’s about the quality of what you do.

Zero Cost House concludes its 2-day run tonight at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center-at Stadium Drive & University Boulevard, in College Park, MD. Both performances are Sold Out. For future events, check Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center’s calendar of events.


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