Home is the newest theatrical confection of Fringe favorite Geoff Sobelle, and a can’t-miss part of the current festival. The first 70 minutes are a surrealistic delight. I recommend sitting on the aisle if you really want to be swept away.
Inspired by conversations with his sister Stephanie Sobelle, a scholar who studies the role of the house in American fiction, Home is a celebration of mundane activities within the middle-class American household of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Sobelle receives assistance from a stellar group of colleagues from Philadelphia and New York. (Please excuse the laundry list, but the complexity of this piece demands that all receive mention.) In addition to his sister, who serves as the project’s dramaturg, the creative team includes previous collaborators – set designer Steven Dufala (machines machines machines machines machines machines machines), lighting designer Christopher Kuhl (Elephant Room), and illusion designer Steve Cuiffo (Elephant Room, responsible for some astonishing moments of visual magic) – as well as director Lee Sunday Evans, choreographer David Neumann, composer/musician Elvis Perkins, creative consultant Julian Crouch (The Devil and Miss Punch at the Fringe Festival) and performers/co-creators Jennifer Kidwell (Underground Railroad Game) and Ching Valdes-Aran. Others I’m less familiar with include sound designer Brandon Wolcott, costume designer Karen Young, performers Sophie Bortolussi, Justin Rose, and Josh Crouch, as well as production manager Sean M. Daniels and technical director Chris Swetcky. This is a huge production, and everyone’s contribution deserves praise.
Home starts quietly. The audience looks at an empty stage. Geoff wanders among the audience, greeting people and chatting with some. Eventually he walks onto the stage and looks around. In the wings, he notices something: a wooden frame that folds out into three sections. He discovers some plastic sheeting in the wings and staples it to the frame and then stands it up. Behind it, a lamp magically appears. Sobelle slides the frame aside, and there’s a bed and an end table. He slides the frame back, and a door appears. He lies down under the sheet and fidgets as he tries to get to sleep. Suddenly he’s gone, and a child is in his place. A woman enters through the door, comforts the child, re-arranges the sheet, and Sobelle is back. This begins a series of wordless scenes which reminded me of the great films of Jacques Tati for their understated wit and slapstick. The bedroom set vanishes and is replaced, almost as magically, by a full-sized two-story cutaway house. It would be unfair to give too much additional description of what happens next, but expect continual surprise, with characters magically appearing from everywhere it seems, and delightful, intricate choreography within the cramped confines of a bathroom and kitchen, and eventually the dining room. Sobelle’s performance itself is understated, with no astonishing feats of physical performance to match, say, the running leap in Flesh and Blood & Fish and Fowl or his salad-chopping flamenco dance in ice skates from The Object Lesson: the focus is on the ensemble and the environment.
It is not a perfect piece. When he first appears, Elvis Perkins, in his ice cream suit and wide-brimmed hat, seems a dream figure, with his atmospheric, reverb-y indie folk. By the third time he appears, however, the sameness of tempo and key makes it difficult to appreciate the intermittent hipster wit of his non-sequitur lyrics and drags the rhythm of the show down. The last 20 minutes of the piece also felt a little anticlimactic to me: a long astonishing sequence seems to go on just a little too long, and is the proverbial tough act to follow, betraying some of the most potentially emotional moments within the piece, including the beautiful final image. Perhaps a little more overt control of the change in rhythm and tone would make this shift stronger.
Home has a built-in future. At the end of this month it travels to Boston; in December it performs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and international touring seems likely to follow (it is co-commissioned by the New Zealand and Edinburgh Festivals, among others). If tickets are still available, catch it before the rest of the world sees it.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.
Home plays through September 16, 2017 at the 2017 Philadelphia Fringe Festival at the Prince Theater – 1412 Chestnut St., in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 413-1318, or purchase them online.