Zero Cost House at first seems like a simple thing to describe—an autobiography of a Japanese playwright—but the complex, interwoven layers and levels making up Zero Cost House start to multiply exponentially the more you try to pin them down: It’s an American commission to the experimental Japanese playwright Toshiki Okada, an autobiography translated into and performed entirely in a highly idiomatic English that, courtesy of a skilled and elegant translation, by Aya Ogawa somehow seems to retain inflections and echoes of the original Japanese. Despite the fact that one of its topics seems to be the playwright’s relationship to Japan and the Japanese character, the piece is performed by an ensemble of five American actors, all of whom play writer-subject Okada either as his present-day or his younger self at some point. It’s a piece that centers on relationships with cultural artifacts both American and Japanese, but those relationships are contested and complicated: particularly Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, but also touching on Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, and the manifestos of the Japanese “anti-architect” Kyohei Sakaguchi (notably Zero Yen House, from which the play derives its title), who comes off as somewhere between visionary and madman, savior and totally self-absorbed.
And then there’s a family of human-size rabbits, played with a delightful matter-of-factness, which are simultaneously characters in a play being written by the young Okada, a Japanese family displaced by the 2011 Fukushima earthquake, a family of Irish immigrants to America described by Thoreau in one of the chapters of Walden (and the recipients of a very typically Thoreauvian tirade, to which they respond with a quietly powerful takedown of how arrogant are the assumptions contained within Thoreau’s prescriptions for good living), and, well, rabbits.
The motif of layers is constant—sometimes subtly, and sometimes, especially once Sakaguchi, who philosophizes with every line, enters the piece, with exuberant overtness. (Where Okada is quietly self-analytical, Sakaguchi is flamboyantly self-dramatizing.) And, fittingly enough, it’s handled in a layered way: referenced in the text, yes, but also embedded in the structure, with Okada appearing at two points in time, with two different perspectives on his own relationship to Walden. He admits its importance, for reasons he can’t quite articulate, to himself as a younger person, but also his disillusionment with it now...though that may shift as events transpire.
For the first half of the piece, Okada and his self-reflection are clearly the driving narrative force (such as it is; it’s a rather slow drive), but as we get into the present moment—as we get to the moment of crisis in Japan—we start also to see other people’s perspective on Okada, present and past: his manager, Thoreau. And we start to see Sakaguchi take over, becoming a propulsive source of energy for Okada and the play; that energy builds and fizzes to a rather abrupt ending.
As the actors shift roles (each playing Okada at one point in his trajectory, but each also playing at least one other role: rabbit, Okada’s manager, Thoreau, or Sakaguchi), we see ever-so-slightly different approaches to the same characters—yet director Dan Rothenberg and the ensemble (Mary McCool, Shavon Norris, James Sugg, Alex Torra, and Dito van Reigersberg) have built distinct character throughlines, traits and styles that travel from actor to actor. It’s a very Brechtian style of performance: we engage emotionally without suspending disbelief; we’re meant to see the performer through the role, but still connect with the character. The performances are so finely calibrated, each unique and yet incorporating mannerisms and speech patterns to never be unclear as to who’s playing which Okada. Thoreau, in both the writing and Alex Torra’s performance, is given a modern energy that seems entirely in keeping, emotionally and psychologically, with the nineteenth-century writer. And James Sugg is electric as Sakaguchi, hyperkinetic and somehow both mesmerizing and discomfiting.
The question that ultimately arises, especially as we start to triangulate on Okada, and as the story of the Fukushima earthquake/tsunami and Okada’s panicked reaction to it starts to creep in, is: What does it mean to fictionalize one’s own story from such a plethora of angles, channeled through a series of voices? How do you see yourself, and how do you see yourself being seen by others? And, in a related question, what happens to the trajectory of one’s fictional autobiography, which may have started as a not-entirely-ironic story of triumph, when it’s intersected by real-life disaster? The major shift in Okada’s emotional coloration and tone, and the unresolved nature of the end to an otherwise very carefully built play, are testament to the ultimate inability to control one’s own story entirely.