Geoff Sobelle, self-declared “maker of absurdist performance art,” is credited as the creator and performer of “The Object Lesson,” but it at least co-stars thousands of boxes. These are boxes that fill up the floor of the New York Theatre Workshop, and are stacked up to the ceiling. Some of the boxes are empty, with scrawled instructions: A fellow playgoer handed me one such box, which said: “Give this box to someone who looks nice.”
Many of the boxes are filled with all sorts of items: On one table, I picked through boxes containing:
An old cassette recorder and old cassettes, but mostly those Styrofoam packing peanuts
A pile of old trophies, with plaques such as “Mayfair Shamrock Tournament Champion” and “Holy Terror 1999 Hoiday Classic Under-10 1st Place”
A sculpture of a horse either laughing or screaming
Day-glo wigs fit for drag queens
several diaries, which seemed too extensive to have been filled out just for this show. One began: January 22, ‘97. So two weeks and a broken tibia later, I start this journal.”
There were also boxes that indicated they were suitable for seats, and that’s what most of the playgoers eventually did, when a man (which we learned only after the show was Sobelle) started taking objects out of boxes – a lamp, a chair, and end table, a beautiful Persian rug, an old-fashioned record player – to create a cozy little room for himself amid the sea of literal box seats.
Thus began the performance part of this performance art installation. This can be divided into about a dozen scenes (more like unrelated sketches) and involved lots of audience participation, and imaginative weirdness, some of it clearly improvised.
At one point, a barefoot Sobelle scaled a mountainous pile of boxes in almost complete darkness, using only a flashlight, then found a box with a lamp, and a box with a working microphone, and then, atop this lamp-lit mountain of cardboard, began to tell a story about his experiences as a teenager on a trip to France. He told us about a goat herd, and then found a box with some goat cheese, which he passed down to the audience, complete with a baguette. He said on his last night in a little village called Carbused, he saw a strange red light in the darkness, and then a green one, and then a yellow one. He eventually realized, he told us, that it was a traffic light, which got a laugh, and then he rummaged through a box, and took out a huge, working traffic light, which bathed us first in red, then green, then yellow.
At another point, Sobelle invited a woman to dine with him, presumably just a random member of the audience. He sat her at a table from which he had cleared off the boxes, and put a plate before her; then he rummaged through various boxes to take out a head of lettuce, sticks of carrots, etc. He climbed atop the table, and, having donned a pair of ice skates, did a fairly accomplished tap dance, serving as a human Veg-o-matic, delivering the chopped ingredients expertly on her plate. He asks another audience member to hold up a chandelier so that they can dine in style.
An extraordinary effort went into creating “The Object Lesson,” most of it, I imagine by Steven Dufala, who is credited with the scenic installation design. There are moments, jerry-rigged with makeshift lighting and some surprise stagecraft, that are both funny and, quite improbably, beautiful. It feels like the kind of show designed to give bragging rights to aficionados of way-out theater such as myself. But it also inspires a contemplation of the meaning of objects in our lives, how an evocative old box of memorabilia – even if not your own – can provoke a swift stream of memories.
If Proust were a packrat, if Felix the Cat were a dramatist, they might have created something like “The Object Lesson.”
The Object Lesson
New York Theatre Workshop
Created and performed by Geoff Sobelle
Directed by David Neumann
Scenic Installation Design by Steven Dufala
Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission (but get there early to go through the boxes)
“The Object Lesson” is scheduled to run through March 5, 2017.