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Pig Iron’s livestreamed ‘Zero Cost House (for Zoom)' crams a big work into tiny little boxes | Review

The Philly company's 2012 collaboration with Japanese writer Toshiki Okada returns in a limited-run Zoom production that's receiving national attention.

Zero Cost House by Pig Iron Theatre Company. Clockwise from bottom left: Aigner Mizzelle, Will Brill, Dito Van Reigersberg
Zero Cost House by Pig Iron Theatre Company. Clockwise from bottom left: Aigner Mizzelle, Will Brill, Dito Van ReigersbergRead moreDan Rothenberg

The Pig Iron Theatre Company on Zoom? True, the pandemic has driven theater companies online. But how is Pig Iron going to do that? They’re so physical. They need a big stage, bodies gesticulating, bizarre stage sets and costumes. How do you squeeze Pig Iron into little Zoom boxes?

These questions arose Friday night, when Pig Iron’s first digital effort, Zero Cost House (for Zoom) debuted for a limited run — the next and last show is 8 p.m. this Friday.

The production is an online version of Zero Cost House, a 2012 Pig Iron collaboration with Japanese writer Toshiki Okada. Dan Rothenberg, who directed that play, directs the Zoom version.

How does Pig Iron do digitally? OK. The first half is flat, but the second improves. Good thing, since this play does a very worthwhile zig.

Zero Cost House is a loopy “autobiography” (kind of). It compares Past Okada (played with dreamy youthfulness by Aigner Mizelle) with Current Okada (played, at least initially, by Pig Iron cofounder Dito van Reigersberg … but the character of Okada passes among several characters, sometimes without warning). We meet a grumpy Henry David Thoreau (played by Pendleton-wearing Alex Torra), author of the book that “saved” Past Okada, Walden.

Okada agonizes over change. He agonizes over writing, reading, music (Björk and Dylan), attitude (Current Okada is worried he’s getting “arrogant”), and this guy named Kyohei Sakaguchi (played with wacky abandon in a wallpaper-eating performance by Will Brill).

While interesting, the first half is static. Most characters speak softly in mundane language. It’s quiet. Awkward. Current Okada is polite. Past Okada is nice. Even Thoreau is only mildly interesting.

With any number of Zoom boxes available, something’s always happening. While folks in two boxes converse, color swirls in another box, or a fidget spinner flickers, someone fiddles a Rubik’s Cube, a pen makes words on paper, or the Rabbit family (Maiko Matsushima and Saori Tsukada) rabbit around.

But it doesn’t crackle. It’s disappointing that Pig Iron hasn’t found better ways to establish rhythm. You might argue, “Okada wants his characters to be flat” ― but something here has not been solved.

What’s missing is movement, an Okada hallmark. He is known for stage choreography that keeps characters and audience off-balance. Here there’s little sense of that. In this summer of Zoom theater, I’ve seen a lot of things that move, move, move. Not so much here.

The acting is very good. I like the way van Reigersberg handles Current Okada, with a rising intonation suggesting hesitancy. Mary McCool is great as a quizzical Manager who beholds, with increasing alarm, Okada planning to change his life. And Brill as Sakaguchi energizes the second half.

That’s the zig: Okada in the second half discovers a call to action. A tsunami causes power outages, shortages, and a need to pare life down to the bare essentials. “My passion for Walden has been reignited,” he says, prompting him to write for the world, “feeling a responsibility.”

Brill’s Sakaguchi bursts out of his Zoom box like no one else, charging and retreating from the camera, pinballing all over. Eyes bugging, he declares, “I can tell everything just by smell!” and he challenges us to “increase the resolution of your thoughts!” Hilarious.

The character is a real person, author of a book titled, Zero Yen House, about people in Tokyo who build tiny houses for free and live off the grid. It’s Walden brought into the 21st century. The play’s Sakaguchi may be nuts ― he ends up starting a new government ― but at least he is genuine. Okada gives him that.

And let’s give Pig Iron credit for Zero Cost House (for Zoom). It’s a good effort. Having seen it, though, I long to see it onstage.

John Timpane lives and writes in New Jersey.

Zero Cost House (for Zoom)

Pig Iron Theatre Co. livestream production, final show 8 p.m. Friday. Tickets: $10 individual, $20 household at