The Object Lesson—a highly acclaimed one-man performance piece, set in a warehouse of the mind that is stacked with memories and the objects that evoke them—has finally arrived in DC, where it is having a limited run at Studio Theatre’s Stage 4.
Billed as “part installation and part magic show,” this startlingly original presentation—which took first prize at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2014 and went on to a sold-out premiere a few months later at the Brooklyn Academy of Music—is as full of contradictions as its setting.
Ben Brantley, reviewing the opening for the New York Times, compared it to his parents’ attic, a “personal chamber of horrors” in which he nearly drowned.
Geoff Sobelle, the actor who created this nightmarish world, doesn’t drown. Instead, like Charlie Chaplin and other great comics of the past, he tiptoes and dances, leaps over chasms and skates upon tables, all within a moonscape of cardboard boxes in which he conjures up the past.
Sobelle is more than an actor. He’s a magician and clown as well. And the boxes, some of which appear to be empty, contain mountains of trash and packing materials along with mementos.
Instead of pulling rabbits out of a hat, this master illusionist pulls potted plants, bottles of red and white wine, table settings and telephones out of what appears to be a graveyard or dump.
Sobelle is actually one of a trio of magicians responsible for this netherworld. Director David Neumann is also a choreographer, dancer, and actor. And Steven Dufala, who designed the space, is a multidisciplinary artist whose sculpture and other work, much of it done in collaboration with his brother, is in public and private collections.
In Dufala’s hands, Studio’s normally bare black box theatre is crammed with towers of debris, making the mere act of walking across the space a perilous journey.
In fact, the entire room is the stage, and so the audience, mostly seated on boxes, is part of the installation. But audience participation can be a mixed bag.
On the night that I attended, a young woman named Nikki practically stole the show. Although not a member of the cast, she performed brilliantly and projected so well that even her whispers could be heard in the farthest corners of the theatre. In fact, hers may well qualify as one of the world’s greatest impromptu auditions. (Casting directors, take note!)
On the other hand, at the same performance, one of the participants was weak. As a result, that particular segment, meant to reveal all the foolish objects we carry around, fell flat.
Performed as a series of vignettes, some of the sketches are more successful than others. By far the most hilarious and spellbinding is a demonstration of a novel approach to making a salad.
Equally entertaining, though less audacious, is a skit involving a trip to France. Our hero, reaching into yet another dust-covered box, extracts a fresh loaf of bread, a piece of goat cheese and a “slightly chilled” bottle of decent white wine. (The audience participant who tasted these things proclaimed them excellent.)
While the underlying concept of this show is brilliant, its comic timing, at my performance, was sometimes off. While some jokes were perfectly told—with the house literally roaring with laughter at the realization that something is not what it seems—others went on well past the point where the audience “gets it.” The silence was sometimes uncomfortable.
Of course, that may be the point. Forcing an audience to experience silence—or even disappointment—may be one of this show’s many “object lessons.”
Darkness plays a major role in this production. Much of the house is cast in shadow as Sobelle tells his stories, sometimes sitting in a chair, other times perched on top of a pile of boxes. Christopher Kuhl has done a brilliant job in coordinating the lights that glare on and off, emanating from dozens of discarded lamps as well as occasional flashlights.
Sound Designer Nick Kourtides orchestrates some wonderful musical jokes with the help of Technical Director Jeff Larson. Imagine the sound of a concerto, wafting perfectly out of an ancient Victrola, or a swing band that swings out of nowhere.
Before the show actually gets underway, the audience is invited to explore the set, which includes a card catalog system lining part of one wall. It’s the sort that many of us remember from the libraries of our childhood.
Each of its tiny drawers contains an artifact or two—a pair of slippers, a toy locomotive, a packet of what might be letters or bills—all carefully labeled and preserved.
Like life itself, the discoveries in this treasure trove are sometimes funny and sometimes sad. And sometimes, as the hero himself points out, they’re just crap. Yet the collection itself is poignant.
The Object Lesson is a serious performance event, well worth seeing by anyone who cares about the future of theatre. It is full of magic. And that’s not easy to find nowadays.
Running Time: 75 minutes ,with no intermission.