For an enduring figure in the American canon, Henry David Thoreau is needier than you might think. When this relic of the 1800s shows up in Toshiki Okada’s probing, funny, hugely resonant play “Zero Cost House,” he is insecure about his 21st-century status. It’s pretty clear he’s been keeping close tabs.
“Do you Google yourself, Mr. Thoreau?” the playwright asks — because this is the kind of show where the author is a character (well, two characters; more on that in a moment), communing with the past.
“Sure, every day,” Thoreau answers. So he knows that his readership is down.
Okada himself, as a young writer in Tokyo, was a fervent “Walden” devotee, and convinced that he always would be. By his late 30s, though, he has become an internationally lauded experimental playwright, but also a guy who considers Thoreau’s treatise on simple living naïve.
In “Zero Cost House” — written for the Philadelphia-based Pig Iron Theater Company, which first staged it in 2012 and has reconfigured it superbly for Zoom — those two versions of Okada (played by an assortment of actors) butt up against each other, albeit gently. Plush rabbit puppets and a charismatic architect-philosopher are along for the ride, with Björk on the soundtrack and cast members trading off characters almost relay-style.
To step into an Okada play is to enter a dreamscape, and that’s true of this fractured stage memoir, too. Then dream morphs into nightmare. The earthquake that struck Japan in March 2011, setting off a tsunami and a nuclear disaster at a power station in Fukushima, becomes the catalyst for Okada’s reconnection with “Walden” and a more radical way of life.
What gives this live-streamed “Zero Cost House” particular potency right now is the wide variety of lenses we have through which to view it — the assorted calamities jolting people into working for social change or into altering their comfortable lives in drastic, once unthinkable ways.
Yet this play is not a dour exercise. Translated into comfortably colloquial American English by the Okada veteran Aya Ogawa, it has a friendliness that makes it approachable.
Directed and adapted by Pig Iron’s co-artistic director Dan Rothenberg — whose previous Okada productions include the achingly atmospheric post-earthquake meditation “Time’s Journey Through a Room” and the more comically contemplative “The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise” — “Zero Cost House” encourages us to seize the opportunity of disaster: to be brave enough to live more meaningfully, to construct a better world.
By re-engaging this deeply with the text, making it work so beautifully online, the artists behind this production — including a uniformly excellent cast and a pair of designers, Maiko Matsushima (visual) and Rucyl Frison (sound) — are themselves responding to a crisis.
In the play, Thoreau mentions a moment in “Walden” when he meets a couple who “seemed to be in dire straits, and what was worse, they had no awareness of how their circumstances had gotten that way in the first place.”