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'Old Paper Houses': a Perfect New England World

Piehole uses Bernadette Mayer poetry and cardboard dioramas to ask why utopias fail.

Photos by Eileen Meny

Old Paper Houses by theater ensemble Piehole is built from two central themes: how terrible it is to live in New England, and why utopian societies fail. Beginning with the poetry of Bernadette Mayer and the famous 1840s Transcendentalist commune Brook Farm, the actors heavily expand beyond the verse to tell their own story of hope and fear of living on a farm.

"New England is awful / The winter's five months long / The sun may come out today but that doesn't mean anything" are the words that open the piece, projected across the backdrop as actors trudge through the snow, shoveling endlessly and occasionally commenting, "Yup, a Nor’easter." This recreation of Mayer's Lenox, MA of the 1970s will hit home for anyone who has ever spent a winter in New England, from the boredom and isolation of being snowed in to the unreliable phone lines. But as humorous as this first section is, it does little more than set the stage for the stories that will follow it.

Then, in a distinct break, we move to Brook Farm, 1841. This episode builds well upon the opening, capturing the joy and naivety of the farm during the summer and how quickly everything crumbles in just a few short months. Though this is a completely different social and religious environment, the idea of living on the farm is extremely appealing at first, until the reality of hard physical labor sinks in--and we find ourselves reflecting on attitudes toward similar movements today. Even the new farmers' interactions with the audience member they have designated to be their hero Ralph Waldo Emerson feel as familiar as they are hilarious. (And he isn't the only audience member to be put on the spot, either.)

Before long, however, we have moved to the third and final section of the play, taking place in a new utopian commune in the present day but also, somehow, in a 1970s version of Massachusetts. Whereas the earlier sections of the play in some way feel like prequels, this is clearly the story that Piehole wants to tell. It is also the world of the old paper houses.

The "paper houses," in fact, are an immense diorama of the company's ideal farm town, made with extreme skill and intricate detail and encompassing everything from houses and banks to a hedge maze and "witches' hovel." Their construction is a feat to be applauded in and of itself, and getting to watch the performers create new buildings and features of the landscape onstage is one of the greatest highlights of the piece. This paper house diorama is both a representation of the real-life town the ensemble is building and the town itself, a brainteaser bit of phenomenology that endows each miniature sculpture with immense significance.

Old Paper Houses achieves this effect through the very clever use of live projection, in which a camera is brought onstage and used to film the diorama in extreme close-up. When projected against the backdrop of the stage, we see the entire town in "full size." The actors can walk through the hedge maze, interact with miniature cardboard people and--in one particularly memorable moment--eat mushrooms from the Mushroom Patch and find themselves in the midst of a massive acid trip, stripping off clothing and wearing paper houses on their heads.

This play is a story of conflict between individual people, as manifested in the politics and drama of constructing the town. When Ben's plans for building a covered bike path are built over or the rest of the ensemble scoffs at the purpose of Alexandra's "spooky town," the camaraderie of the once enthusiastic and loving commune splinters little by little. The personalities of the actors are infused into their characters and the town itself (they use their real names), making each little barb hurt all the more.

Just as in Brook Farm, the modern Massachusetts commune ends in failure, but the play concludes without turning depressing or cynical. Rather, we get to embrace the immense history behind Lenox and its utopian idealists, in all their 1840s attire or 1970s glory. And while I may have wished for more integration between the first two episodes of the play and the paper houses tale, each facet of Old Paper Houses helps tell the story of the utopian farm society and its overwhelming troubles.

In 2015, with all of our modern technology, it isn't really the cold that gets to you. Rather, it's the struggle of planning together, of respecting feelings and competing priorities as everyone tries to create their own personal interpretation of what their ideal society would be. And even if you have never dreamed of running away to live on a farm, that is a situation anyone can relate to.

Old Paper Houses plays at the Irondale Center through March 14.

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