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Can We Put a Perfect World On Stage?

Date: Mar 05, 2015
What is it about the idea of a perfect community that's so alluring? And is the attempt to make art all that different from the quest to create a utopia?

Members of the theatre ensemble Piehole found themselves wrestling with these questions as they developed Old Paper Houses, directed by Tara Ahmadinejad and running through Mar. 14 at the Irondale Center in Brooklyn.

The show began when a Piehole member brought in a Bernadette Mayer poem called "Essay." "It became the anchor for our piece," says Ahmadinejad. "Her poetry helps you read the artistic act as a kind of utopian pursuit. There's an obsessive need to get it right and somehow capture something that is true. Of course, you can't ever get it quite right, but it's the pursuit that makes life worth living."

Even though Mayer wrote in the 1970s, Piehole next turned to Brook Farm, a commune from the Transcendentalist Movement of the 1840s that the poet references in her work. "We wanted to look at what it is that made people in the 1840s move to a commune and have all these romantic ideals and not be embarrassed about it," Ahmadinejad says.

{Image1} Old Paper Houses acknowledges both sources, and despite its often academic roots, it's funny in surprising ways, with performing "trying on" various utopian models.

The show begins, for instance, in an exaggerated New England where people cannot have ideals because it's just too cold. The second episode shifts to the 1840s, where the cast tries out farming. Ultimately, though, that just becomes another oppressive system.

"This part parallels what Hawthorne experienced at Brook Farm," says Ahmadinejad, referencing a satirical, Brook Farm-inspired novel that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in 1852.
From there, the group is sent into a contemporary New England, where they attempt to create a utopia by assembling cardboard houses and saying "yes" to everyone's individual desires. Unsurprisingly, that doesn't quite work.

For Ahmadinejad, this movement between utopias underscores how hard it is to make a definitive statement on the subject. "There's this gray area we are working on in this piece," she says. "We keep asking, 'How can we be complex and incorporate doubt into what we're doing without making something wishy-washy and non-committal?'"

The show's design, which includes everything from paper dioramas to live-feed video projection, in part responds to this quandary. The shifts in scale from dioramas-at-a-distance to up-close video shots give the audience a dual experience of being at once inside and outside these near-paradises.

Old Paper Houses doesn't quite end with the final utopia on stage, however. Rather, there's one last attempt at social perfection. Audiences are invited to join the creative team and special guest artists at post-show hangout session or, as Ahmadinejad calls them, "low key utopian heavens." What happens next is up to the community.


Eliza Bent is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn

Photo by Caro