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The Object Lesson - Geoff Sobelle

The Object Lesson

Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Most of us know that no matter how much closet space we have, it isn't enough. Stuff accumulates. Some items may depict a significant moment in our life, others just find a place and settle there. As writer/performer Geoff Sobelle tells us, “There’s a fine line between vintage and crap” and at times, it all becomes overwhelming and we turn from an overstuffed closet to filling piles of boxes.

Stepping into the New York Theatre Workshop gives you the same feeling. You are in an attic or maybe a storage unit, a dry, musty space filled with boxes, pillows, some chairs, a sofa, lamps, piles and years of accumulation. You're encouraged to roam through the boxes, peek inside, move them around, examine a stuffed deer's head, a turntable or a pig-shaped soup tureen.

One hint, if you're lucky enough to squeeze onto a spot on a sagging sofa, grab it. Otherwise find a chair or one of the boxes to sit on. This season, with winter clothes and bags, this is not easy. There is no theater seating here, not even the bleachers the theater used for its last production, Othello.

Tackling all this is "dedicated absurdist" Geoff Sobelle, who drags in an area rug, dusty with old furniture stuffing and those Styrofoam peanuts that stick to everything. He settles in an armchair next to a dial phone which he occasionally uses. He is, in turns, affable and melancholy as he considers the value of this life packed away in boxes. What memories stand out and how much is important?

Directed by David Neumann, Sobelle mumbles to himself or engages with the audience as he digs in. He examines items around him, a dead plant, a gramophone with a scratchy recording, a standing lamp, but gives this up. Finally he leaves and in the dark, stepping through the audience, he heads for the back of the theater and climbs up the mountain of boxes, obviously looking for something particular. "You know when you're sure you know where something is?"

He retrieves a box on top holding memorabilia from a treasured time in France. Holding up a piece of cheese and a bottle of wine, he passes them down, urging the audience to sample them. He yanks a traffic light out of the box. In the blackness, we watch "Go" and "Stop" blink. And blink. And blink. Does this mean something or is it only meant to give Sobelle time to reappear in another area.

Sobelle has great energy and finesse, maneuvering in the dark, over and around the piles that was created by "installation designer," Steven Dufala. Lighting by Christopher Kuhl is varied and at one point, highlights a past Christmas season with an opened box of tree decorations. Sobelle chooses a game young lady to join him in his romantic fantasy of dinner and dancing. He climbs on the dinner table and shows his unique way of chopping lettuce wearing ice skates and tap-dancing to "All I Do Is Dream of You." When he asks his "date" to dance, they dance/skate to Burt Bacharach's "What the World Needs Now is Love" as white paper flakes fall from an overturned canoe hanging on the ceiling. A charming fantasia.

Memorabilia is significant in the span of a life. Years pass, events fade and people leave but the physical objects we save remain, although the emotions they evoke can be disturbing. Sobelle, becomes overwrought, tossing some items on the old rug and dragging it all out of sight. Moving to a different space, he opens a folded cardboard box and tapes the bottom. In an extraordinary legerdemain, Sobelle begins pulling endless paraphernalia from the empty box, summing up the story of a lifetime that ends in a tangle of wires snagged with dirt, roots, broken walls.

So, is life, or at least Sobelle's life, meaningless, a morass of discarded rubble left in an empty box? Or is this a lesson about one life, now ended, leaving treasured memories amid some stuff that just...accumulated?

NY Theatre Workshop Presents:
The Object Lesson
Director: David Neumann
Scenic Installation: Steven Dufala
Choreographer: David Parker
February 17, 2017
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors