This winter, nobody needs to be told how cold and snowy the weather can be in New England. So, the teeth-chattering dance with shovels that opens Piehole’s Old Paper Houses strikes a sympathetic chord with audiences happy to take shelter from another bitter night at the Irondale Center. But when the snow-crusted figures eventually trade parkas for summer petticoats, and their shivering scooping for frenetic seed planting in a Transcendentalist communal experiment, bemusement takes over. Utopia-minded poet-farmers espousing a mantra of “Industry without drudgery?” We can only smirk knowingly when their labors and ideals are let down by human weakness – and overpowered by another Nor’easter.
Is surviving New England – its brutal climate and taciturn residents – the equivalent of quasi forced labor in a farming commune? These juxtaposed sequences beg the question. The first is narrated by poet Bernadette Mayer’s wryly direct observations about New England winters: “There’s only daylight for four hours. At night all the telephones go out. Every weekend there’s a storm,” etc. She lived in Lenox, Massachusetts, in the 1970s, so she evidently writes from firsthand experience. The second is inspired by George Ripley’s failed experimental commune, Brook Farm, outside Boston, in the 1840s. That project lured Nathaniel Hawthorne long enough for him to write a scathing novel about the more dystopian aspects of a purportedly utopian society.
The comparisons are amusing and, with Tara Ahmadinejad’s playful direction – that has the eight member cast ritualistically nibbling on baked beans and chasing a big yellow balloon as if it were a ray of sunlight – do make it seem that the company’s interest in America’s Transcendental moment is more ironic than genuine. But Piehole has another plan for our evening. It starts, after Brook Farm has failed, with building a town.
Old Paper Houses is not so much a metaphorical title as a literal reference to Meyer (“Everybody lives in old paper houses,” she muses in Midwinter Day about drafty New England homes) and to dozens of miniature buildings the cast has fashioned with cardboard and Elmer’s glue. A few of these are lined up downstage where they glow warmly against the harsh elements of the show’s opening sections. They multiply exponentially as the story trades the 19th century for the 21st and asks what a utopian communal experiment might look like today.
By answering with those paper houses, Piehole takes some droll pot shots at modern urban planning along the way. We learn, for example, from the commune’s proud and excited members that the town’s foundational landmarks – bank, hospital, library, government building and corner store – are set to be connected by a light rail (in the meantime there are plenty of bike racks). This being a socialist endeavor, there is also the Poetry/Picnic Tree, the Multi-Use Barn (handicapped accessible) and the First Unitarian Community Center.
But the town planners’ shared sense of purpose is gradually and deliberately weakened by succeeding additions that range from the new-agey (Storytelling Alley, the Enchanted Grove with a witches’ hovel, a psychedelic Mushroom Patch) to the commercial (a box store supermarket and a bank charging interest on loans). Still others demonstrate their founders’ personal agendas; writer Jessie Renee Hopkins’ bouncy text even leaves room for a “racist lake” (“the icey souls of the town’s unrepentant racists keep it eternally frozen”), represented by a kidney-shaped piece of insulated freezer bag, in the unfolding diorama that will eventually cover the stage floor. Witnessing these changes are a disabused farmer, an overzealous historian, an earnest urban planner, a glad-handing politician, and more. These are played with commitment, even zeal, to the Piehole cause, led by Emilie Soffe as the farmer who doesn’t let herself mistake the forest for the trees, despite what everyone else thinks.
Indeed, something more sinister is going on as, with each new building or landmark, the town’s layout changes, demonstrated by the nimble cast as they shuffle and sometimes repurpose the miniature structures, and record the developments with a handheld video camera. Although the live feed is projected against a crumpled paper backdrop, the footage starts to look a lot like a promotional video extolling the town’s sights and attractions (the Margaret Fuller House, the Historical Society, the Harvest Festival). But Old Paper Houses turns out to be as much about the death of utopian dreams than about the adventure of their pursuit. The Videographer, Jeff, would like us also to take a stroll through Spooky Town, on the other side of the train trestle, where the ghosts of this fading town hang from the steeple of the First Unitarian Church and “shell-shocked vets” hide behind the covered bridge.
With cities like Detroit in dramatic decline, it doesn’t take a Transcendentalist vision to know that towns come and go and some of the reasons why. If Piehole’s line of questioning is not specifically about that, but rather failed utopias, reading Old Paper Houses in the light of the transformations that cities everywhere have undergone in this country in the last 100 years yields more food for thought. The show ends in a Seventies-styled party with Transcendentalists Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller and George Ripley in the Irondale’s mezzanine. However, it was George Orwell and William Golding who wrote the book on utopias – and why they go up in smoke. Old Paper Houses is amusing as DIY theater, funny on urban planning and pertinent on the American town’s rise and fall. But Brook Farm had its moment, and as this cleverly constructed show demonstrates amply, it’s one that likely won’t be repeated.