Um, ok then, may I begin? All right, well then, um hello.
Thank you for all for coming here today. So, all right, I guess
I should talk about, well first of all, who am I? I think, so I’d like to introduce myself to you but, I am, my name is Toshiki Okada.
So begins Zero Cost House, by Japanese playwright Toshiki Okada. A major figure in contemporary Tokyo’s experimental theatre scene, Okada wrote the play for Dan Rothenberg of Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre Company to direct and for Pig Iron actors to perform. The awkward, circular nature of Okada’s syntax—combined with the self-conscious and guileless performance style of actor Dito van Reigersberg, who played Okada—created a gentle, self-effacingly humorous tone when I caught the premiere at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival in September. As is typical in Okada Land, a curious distancing effect was also in play.
Van Reigersberg speaks with an American accent, sports a hoodie and flatly informs the audience that he is, in fact, Japanese. He goes on to describe with minimal inflection how uneasy he feels presenting himself “as if I were brimming with confidence, although, to be honest, I am aware of the fact that I am brimming with confidence as I stand here before you, but, in my case, you see, I’m Japanese, and I think this has to a lot to do with it, in Japan, humility is considered a great virtue, so that’s also a reason that I believe at my core that I am a humble person, for better or worse.”
A ripple of disquieting laughter greets this circuitous, navel-gazing introduction to Okada’s play—which hardly seems like the start of a polemic or a call for political action. But Zero Cost House, which is as deeply personal as its opening speech implies, turns into both those things. By the performance’s end, some of the theatre’s once-filled seats are empty. In the restroom on the way out, I overhear snippets of conversation. “Did you hate that as much as I did?” an older patron inquires while washing her hands. The young person she’s addressing replies, “No,” with a pointed smile. The awkward silence that ensues is broken by the howl of a hand dryer. And scene.
Neither Okada nor Rothenberg come off as particularly controversial figures. They both wear hip eyeglasses and a few days’ worth of facial scruff and seem at ease approaching middle age (both men are 39). The start of their collaboration was fortuitous. In 2007 Kate Loewald of New York City’s Play Company contacted Rothenberg about directing Okada’s play Enjoy. Rothenberg was unfamiliar with Okada’s work. “When I read the script there were no actor names—it just said actor 1, actor 2 and so on. So I was pretty excited about that, because it was the opposite of what we do with Pig Iron,” says the director. “People who work with me know that there are no narrators. There’s nothing worse than a narrator. All these characters in Enjoy are narrators. I was excited about breaking one of my rules.”
Rothenberg was bending another rule, too—he usually directs only for Pig Iron, but Loewald had a hunch he’d be the right director for Okada, whose company chelfitsch (a play on the English word “selfish”) employs unique physical scores in performances—something she believed could be simpatico with Pig Iron’s aesthetic. While his own company’s choreographic approach varies from project to project, chelfitsch’s movement style, Rothenberg says, amounts to continuous “cascades of florid gesture.”
Given the challenging text and varying movement styles, Rothenberg notes that working on Enjoy “could have gone terribly.” But it didn’t. In fact, the play garnered critical acclaim in New York City, cementing Okada’s international reputation. Witness Relocation’s staging of Okada’s Five Days in March, which premiered a few months later in 2010, also received warm reviews. (Oddly, despite Okada’s numerous awards and accolades, Enjoy was voted by critics as the worst play in Japan in 2006.)
In order to become familiar with Okada’s work, Play Company sent Rothenberg and playwright/translator Aya Ogawa to Tokyo to meet him and observe rehearsals. “Dan saw me at two different types of rehearsals—ones with my company where I was comfortable, and ones with acting students, where I was uncomfortable,” Okada tells me during an interview in Philadelphia, with the help of interpreter Philip Gayle. Matters of comfort aside, a connection was made.
“I was nervous when Toshiki came to Enjoy in the USA,” admits Rothenberg, who was nonetheless pleased when Okada said that he not only liked the production but that it “didn’t feel Japanese” to him. “I had tried hard to make the play not feel exotic to Americans,” Rothenberg avows. Okada, impressed with how Rothenberg was able to connect the show to American audiences, declared that Enjoy “established a trust between us.” The seeds of their collaboration for Zero Cost House were planted.
An early possible title for Zero Cost House was The Autobiography of Toshiki Okada, and the play is indeed that. So it makes sense that multiple versions of Okada pepper the stage: “Current Okada” is an international art star while “Past Okada” appears as a 23-year-old aspiring writer who works part-time to make ends meet. Current and Past Okada are played by all five actors in the show’s cast, regardless of gender, age or race. Near the start of the play, we learn that Past Okada was Walden-obsessed. (Another previous title: Toshiki Reads Walden.) “Back then, I read Walden several times,” Current Okada says of his former self, “and I probably should have read a lot of other books too, but I just kept reading that one book over and over, but there was a part of me back then that thought that it was fine for me to just keep reading the same book.”
Thoreau’s Walden and the writing of Japanese artist Kyohei Sakaguchi, who describes houses built for zero yen made of trash and other waste, were Okada’s original source materials, and after the events of March 11, 2011, unfolded—the earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima disaster—they felt more relevant than ever. Two months later Okada told Rothenberg and the group at a workshop at PlayMakers Repertory Company in North Carolina about Sakaguchi leaving Tokyo for Kumamoto, his hometown in the far west of Japan, because he didn’t think that the government was telling the truth about radiation. Okada confided that he was considering a move to Kumamoto, too.
“I wasn’t that excited when Toshiki first suggested Walden,” Rothenberg concedes, but in the wake of the earthquake, and given Okada’s plan to leave Tokyo, he realized that dramatizing Okada’s life might be compellingly topical. “I haven’t made a lot of overtly political work, but I got excited about the politics in Enjoy, which opens with a speech about unemployment,” Rothenberg notes. There’s similarly subversive politics in Five Days in March, which occurs as the Iraq War is beginning—this fact lurks in the background of the play, while hipsters and slackers go about their lives and have love affairs. “For most of us in the U.S. and in Japan, that is how we live our lives—we live our politics with our decisions,” Rothenberg declares, “with our friends, the things we buy, the desire to fit in or not.”
Despite Okada’s approval of Enjoy’s non-Japanese aura, Rothenberg and his team decided to go the opposite direction for Zero Cost House. The play would not only be set in a Japanese context, but it would also be personally specific about Okada and Sakaguchi. A trip to Japan was necessary. The group would workshop pages in Kumamoto, Okada’s new residence, and meet Sakaguchi in the flesh.
“Even though I’m Japanese, my policy is to shake hands at any time without hesitation,” the larger-than-life Sakaguchi character declares when we first meet him halfway through the play. This boastful post-frat-boy fellow, played with puffed- out-chest zest by James Sugg, describes how he was an admirer of Okada’s plays and how the two finally met in 2010 after a show in Yokohama. Sakaguchi tells Okada about his book that is “as awesome as the plays you write.” It details how to live on zero yen, but it’s about more than just living cheaply, the artist says: “This book seduces the reader into understanding another layer of reality that exists in the world.” Later he declares, “You gotta use your talents for something other than yourself. Especially if you’re an artist.”
This isn’t the first meta-theatrical mind swerve the play takes. Early on, Past Okada directs the onstage action in a scene between two domestic rabbits, who discuss the difficulty of dealing with in-laws and generational difficulties. “Oh, you want me to cry?” Rabbit Wife asks Past Okada, breaking character. “Yep,” he replies, sitting behind his writing table. The actors swap roles from scene to scene, even trading roles with the rabbits, all in the course of a few scenes, sometimes within the same scene. Thoreau makes an appearance clad in flip-flops and a knit hat. While Past Okada is ecstatic to meet him, Current Okada frets that he’s become the kind of person that he never wanted to become, and rues the fact that Walden, 15 years later, has lost its importance to him.
In the play’s second half, in the wake of the earthquake, Okada’s relationship to Walden refortifies, and Sakaguchi is portrayed as a kind of modern-day prophet, even founding his own nation-state in far western Japan. The domestic bunny rabbits get on board with Sakaguchi’s new government, leaving Tokyo. So does Current Okada, but not without provoking rancor from his manager, played with pitch-perfect uptalk by Mary McCool: “The problem is that, look, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, OK, but the reason you’re able to say things like that is because of your position, I mean, Okada, you are in many ways, you can afford a lot of freedom, you can’t deny that. Because there are a lot of people who couldn’t leave Tokyo ever easily if they wanted to.”
Current Okada wants more than just his own personal change in domicile. “I want the whole system to change, where everything is so Tokyo-centric, and a whole nation is centered around one city, and everybody has to conform to that way of doing things,” Current Okada says. The manager responds quietly that he thinks Okada is changing in a dangerous way. “In order to work toward changing the world for the better, you can’t help but become arrogant, and I think that may be unavoidable,” the theatricalized Okada replies.
“I would never do this show in Japan, I would be too embarrassed,” Okada tells me later in an interview. “I wanted to make something that would be impossible for me to do in Japan with my company. The biggest challenge was the process of thinking about how I could write something that would be interesting for an American audience and actors. The idea of doing something autobiographical felt kind of preposterous and ridiculous, but it also felt extremely theatrical and perfect for the stage.”
Reactions in the press to Zero Cost House ranged from frustration to thoughtfulness. A review on Philly.com began, “A trifecta: boring, pretentious and arrogant.” What that review neglected to acknowledge is that Zero Cost House was consciously about arrogance—tackling the thorny issue of how one goes about changing the world, the play contends, ultimately requires a good measure of haughtiness. Charles Isherwood, in the New York Times, wrote, “The play is so repetitive and dramatically sluggish that its ideas seem to be written in cement that is slowly drying before your eyes.” The crux of Okada’s work is indeed a kind of anti-theatricality; the play is repetitive, almost maddeningly so. Watching it felt to me akin to sampling something on Sarah Michelson or Robert Wilson’s dance card. Okada is dealing in word choreography that builds to an apex of ideas; he’s not just hinting at philosophy but full-on dramatizing it, albeit in an anti-theatrical milieu.
Rothenberg says Okada’s plays “mess with the audience’s sense of time—so it’s been like learning a new language as we calibrate the various rhythms of ‘nothing-is-happening’ into a satisfying whole.” Nelson Pressley recognized this in a Washington Post review, which describes how the design of the show, like some of its dialogue, “[pries] open those provocative ideas about philosophy, politics and shelter”—perhaps a more accurate trifecta.
Zero Cost House has undergone some renovations for its next performance cycle, namely at this month’s Under the Radar Festival in New York City and at the Tokyo Performing Arts Market in February. “We took out the intermission and cut some sections down,” says Rothenberg. Still, one can’t help but think that a play that proposes that audience members should change their lives will generate some walkouts and snippy post-show disagreements. Then again, Zero Cost House is hyperaware of the conundrum it proposes, and both Okada and Rothenberg are too savvy to stoop to propaganda. “Toshiki is dramatizing the worry and confusion around inertia and political action,” reasons Rothenberg. “That has its own impact.”
For Okada, whose previous work has cast a clinically cynical eye on the modern age, Zero Cost House moves in a new direction. “I was trying to avoid getting sucked into cynicism when I made this play. I’ve tried to leave the possibility for optimism open.”
“Go ahead, watch me, criticize me, that’s fine,” Sakaguchi says near the play’s end. “If what I’m trying to do ultimately ends in failure, and I become known as the con man revolutionary, they will all point their fingers at me and laugh, saying I knew it, yeah, go ahead, that’s OK, but I have lived in this world and put my ideas into practice, and those who laugh at me, were just watching me, and the world, while I was really experiencing life.”
When the rabbits arrive at Sakaguchi’s compound, he informs them that all citizens of his new, post-earthquake government must assume ministerial office. Sizing up the rabbits’ ears, Sakaguchi tells them, “I’m betting your sense of hearing must dwarf mine, so it’s settled then, I hereby appoint you the ministers of hearing.”