The Object Lesson: In brief
Geoff Sobelle's absurdist installation unpacks our baggage about "things" in an immersive set that boxes in the audience. David Neumann directs the New York premiere at BAM's Next Wave Festival.
The Object Lesson: Theater review by Helen Shaw
So much of the incandescent The Object Lesson comes as a surprise that I must take a basic precaution so your perfect, gleeful enjoyment might be preserved. It is this: Go to the show. And I mean, right away, this minute, get off the Internet and bustle over to BAM before you read any further of its giddy epiphanies. If you are still reading, I will grudgingly offer a description. The Object Lesson is Geoff Sobelle's wistful, silly ode to stuff, a magic act in which your soul is the rabbit and the show is the hat.
Walk into the BAM Fisher and you'll be thrown, forcefully, onto your memories of the last time you packed up a house. Cardboard boxes reach to the ceiling, litter the floor (they double as seating) and conceal all manner of diligently labeled surprises. There are toys in the “Toys” box. The sign “Glued shut” does not lie. Or there's the box that holds a tiny tableau, a miniature car stopped at a train track, which smells of earth and sounds like nighttime.
Steven Dufala's installation-cum-set divulges more and better secrets, as, for instance, when magician-performer-writer-philosopher Sobelle unpacks an entire living room out of it. Here he can sit and have a little think, listen to his phonograph or record his own doubts about the process ahead. That these exact doubts then return to him—literally, via a phone call—is only one of the virtuosic bits woven together by Sobelle and director David Neumann.
Neumann is a choreographer, Sobelle is a clown, so the structure of the show meanders: a bit of cabaret, a bit of vaudeville. (If Sobelle wants to tap-dance in ice skates on a head of lettuce, narrative logic will not deter him.) What connects the bits is the detritus itself, the junk that surrounds us like a glorious nimbus, our satellite halo, each man's Oort cloud of aide-mémoire. Sobelle spends much of the evening quietly contemplating his things, rocking us with laughter or relating shaggy-dog tales. After several delicate bits of intentional (and unintentional) audience participation—a man examines the contents of his pockets; a woman accidentally drinks a prop—we realize Sobelle is asking us not just to watch his story of ephemera, but to contribute our own as well.
The Object Lesson closes with the artist's equivalent of an aria, a lovely, wordless sequence in which Sobelle pulls an entire lifetime's objects out of a seemingly bottomless box. The episode is on a level with Marcel Marceau's famous Youth, Maturity, Old Age and Death; it's a piece that you feel you might need to see every year, as a touchstone. By its end, Sobelle is pulling out cords, then knotted cables, then the roots of a tree. This is the one surprise I feel I can not spoil—even knowing it's coming, you won't be prepared for how beautiful it is. It will uproot you too.—Theater review by Helen Shaw