As soon as the audience enters the theater, they know The Object Lesson will be a different theatre experience. The room is filled with countless boxes labeled and arranged amid lamps, furniture and the detritus and mementos of a lifetime. The audience sits around on the boxes and looks through others in anticipation that Geoff Sobelle’s The Object Lesson will be a mostly entertaining rumination on souvenirs someone gathers during a life.
The Object Lesson, which was created and is primarily performed by actor-illusionist Sobelle and directed by David Neumann, opened on Sep. 9 in Culver City, Calif. The Kirk Douglas Theatre is transformed into an epic storage facility with boxes stacked to the ceiling and a truly immersive theatre experience. While the show seems self-indulgent and drags at times, it is mostly funny and thought-provoking.
Sobelle describes his “job as a theatre artist is to challenge traditional modes of perspective through complex, multi-layered, virtuosic, visual theatre that uses performance itself as a metaphor for the human experience.” Toward that end, the performance involves him sorting through and talking about seemingly random stuff full of hidden significance and memories: hockey skates, a traffic light, an old record player, a phone with a dial, bottles of wine, various pieces of furniture, and gadgets. As Sobelle muses, “There’s a fine line between vintage and crap.”
The show is at its best in two key spots: the dinner party and what could only be called the Mary Poppins’ magic trick. In the dinner party bit, he invites a woman in the audience to dine with him. Opening more seemingly random boxes, he pulls out plates, glasses, ingredients, etc. Then, using the hockey skates on his feet, he hilariously begins preparing the absurd meal.
Remember Mary Poppins’ magical, bottomless carpetbag? Geoff Sobelle has his version as a magic trick in, naturally, a cardboard box. From the seemingly bottomless box (which he tapes together before the audience’s eyes), he proceeds to take out an entire lifetime’s worth of objects from cradle to grave. There are used diapers and baby gear; various progressions of electronic paraphernalia; a history of telephone design the last 50 years; changes of jackets, glasses and prescriptions as he ages; and more. The simple-looking box keeps yielding items. Once the life and the bit are exhausted, Sobelle disassembles the box.
It is no surprise to read that Sobelle began his career as a magician, before becoming a actor and “absurdist performance artist,” as he calls himself on his Web site.
The Stanford University graduate trained in physical theatre at École Jacques Lecoq in Paris, France. Besides his theatrical presentations (this is not his first at the Kirk Douglas), Sobelle teaches workshops in devised theatre creation and physical approach to character and humor. The performer also teaches at the Pig Iron School in Philadelphia and Bard College in New York.
While Sobelle sometimes tries too hard to be cute and have the audience like him, The Object Lesson, and the way it makes one take second looks at the souvenirs of life, is interesting. It is at its best when being engaging and inclusive. Having the audience sit among the jetsam of life adds greatly to the ambience (caution – not to the audience’s comfort).
The Object Lesson won the top prize at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2014 and was presented at the 2014 Next Wave Festival at BAM in New York. The appearance, now through Oct. 4, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre is its West Coast premiere. From there it moves to Columbus, Ohio, Oct. 28-31, Minneapolis, Minn., Nov. 4-8; and at Bard College, Dec. 17-19.
Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss
Performance at Kirk Douglas Sep. 9, 2015
Center Theatre Group: The Object Lesson
New York Times: ‘The Object Lesson’ Takes Top Prize at Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Top photo by Craig Schwartz/courtesy of Center Theatre Group
Bottom photo of crowd examining, sitting on boxes by Dyanne Weiss