At BAM, the waiter offered me the menu, but it only had one sentence written on it: “Say ‘I would like to order the Arctic char.’”
“I would like to order the Arctic char,” I complied.
“How would you like it?”
“Medium,” I replied, not knowing what else to say.
He nodded, put on goggles and a large white winter coat of the type worn by polar explorers, and then hopped on top of the banquet table, which was roughly the size of a pickleball court, seating about thirty people, and covered with an immense white tablecloth. Somehow that tablecloth became a convincing snow-covered landscape – and then, magically, an ice pond, since he cut a hole in it, dug his hand way in, and took out a flapping fish, which he put on my plate, where it kept flapping.
One thing was certain: It was not medium.
The waiter was Geoff Sobelle, and this was one of the highlights in the first third of his show , “FOOD,” running through November 18th as part of the 40th annual Next Wave Festival.
As is typical of the Next Wave shows, although maybe more so than usual, “Geoff Sobelle’s FOOD” is not easy to sum up. It wasn’t one thing; it was a journey, an unexpected one: dinner party, history lesson, freak show, parable. My reaction traveled too, from expectant to baffled to amused to amazed to disgusted to inspired to impressed.
“FOOD” started with the promise of a pretend dinner party, held in a facsimile of an elegant eatery (an oil painting of dancing bears hung on a muted red wall, smooth jazz music, a custom-built chandelier) in which we would learn about the history and culture of cuisine. Sobelle asked us to close our eyes and think about the last meal we had – “was it lovingly prepared for you?” Then, in a soothing Nature documentary-type voice, he asked us to “go all the way back” – first into the womb, then back in the trees with bananas, then to “big animals and your hungry eyes” and all the way to wooden cutting boards and electric mixers.
He started handing out “menus” to individual “diners” (like the one I got), preparing, presenting and distributing “food” (which was on occasion actual food) and pouring wine into the wine glasses of all the people sitting around the table. The rest of the theatergoers, sitting in the auditorium didn’t get any wine (the seating was first come, first-served) but some were also asked to answer questions or perform. Although those sitting around the table were sometimes asked to taste and/or pass around an item of food, a warning: Do not expect to eat at this show. It is not dinner theater, at least not in any conventional sense.
The production of the food (certainly that flapping Arctic char) felt like something of a magic show. And then it segued into what I hope was a full-fledged magic show, although it might have just been a freak show.
Sobelle started eating the food he had prepare – piece by piece, plate by plate, bushel by bushel, with let’s say no regard to table manners. When he guzzled in one gulp two full bottles of wine, then started shoving napkins and cigarettes and candles down his thrown, a woman near me turned her head away from him and buried it in the comforting shoulder of her date; I know for sure she was not alone. I burped in sympathy, and looked at my watch.
But then, still standing after that mammoth consumption (maybe all that eating was sleight of hand) he pulled off that enormous white table cloth and revealed ….I think I won’t tell you the details. It was elaborate, a parable for our age, about our relationship to the land, that might not have seemed completely connected to food — but, yes, on reflection, it was. It was built bit by bit with audience participation. It was weird, it was silly, but it was meaningful, and it was fun.
Geoff Sobell’s FOOD
BAM Fisher Center through November 18
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Creator, Performer Co-Director, Geoff Sobelle
Co-Creator/Magician, Steve Cuiffo
Co-Director, Lee Sunday Evans
Sound Design, Tei Blow
Original Lighting Design, Isabella Byrd
Lighting Design, Devin Cameron
Chandelier Creation, Steven Dufala
Props Creation, Jessie Baldinger, Julian Crouch, Steve Cuiffo, Nathan (Pierre) Lemoine, Raphael Mishler, Connor O’Leary, Geoff Sobelle, Matthew Soltesz, Christopher Swetcky