The audience mills about the stage of the Curran Theatre, looking into the boxes comprising the set for Geoff Sobelle’s The Object Lesson, a solo show about stuff and time and life. Below: Stuff, stuff and more stuff. Inside one of the boxes and Sobelle sets up at the beginning of the show.
You’d think, from the piles and walls of boxes that fill the stage of the Curran Theatre, that Geoff Sobelle’s object here would involve shame – shame that we’re so attached to our stuff and that we accumulate so much stuff and that being burdened by SO MUCH STUFF would be about the worst thing there is.
But that’s not really the case. The experience does kind of make you want to go through some old boxes and maybe do some judicious pruning to the stuff collection, but the overall feeling is one of affection for our stuff because, as junky and fire hazard-y as it might be, it’s ours, and as such, filled with memories, traumas, joys, mysteries, connections lost and found. In short, it’s all the physical manifestations of our innards, however you want to define that (soul, psyche, spirit, psychosis).
Audiences members are encouraged to get to the theater early so they can immerse themselves in the world of the play (which, as are all Curran: Under Construction events, held entirely on the stage of the venerable San Francisco theater). Designer Steven Dufala has stuffed the space with piles and towers of boxes, and they’re filled – at least all those within reach – with objects, notes and enigmas. We are encouraged to dive in and explore. One box I opened, labeled “balloons,” had inflated red balloons as well as several hot-air balloon-themed wind chimes. Another box was filled only with instructions, that I was to find someone who wanted to share a secret with and tell them with a smile, “I believe this is just for you.” Another box was filled with boots and photographs.
People really get into the poking about, finding masks and taking selfies wile trying them on, discovering a mini-disc player and grooving to the tunes it happens to be playing and just enjoying the thrill of going through other people’s things.
Creator/performer Sobelle, who launched this show at the Edinburgh Fringe last year before taking it to New York, emerges into the crowd and begins emptying boxes and creating a set for himself – green chair, busted (but functional) lamps, an end table and a dial telephone, a fake plant, a turntable playing David Byrne’s “Glass, Concrete and Stone,” a gramophone – while the audience finds a seat on one of the sturdy cardboard boxes marked “seat.”
Once his little nest is settled, the lights go down, and the 90-ish-minute show begins. The first chapter involves Sobelle ranting into a little tape recorder and then, cleverly, receiving counsel via the telephone from the recording he has just made. He then shifts to the edge of the stage, where the closed curtain conceals the auditorium, but the curtain doesn’t remain closed for long, and sure enough, the auditorium, especially the mezzanine, is also filled with boxes.
Sobelle muses on the past and the greatest week of his life living and working in the French countryside. His story is punctuated by discoveries from the boxes, including some goat cheese, a baguette and a bottle of wine, all of which are generously shared with the audience. A trek into the mezzanine to retrieve a beloved memento is nothing short of enchanting.
After some interaction with audience members who narrate the contents of their pockets and purses, Sobelle launches into a clown section of the show that reminded me of Bill Irwin and David Shiner and the kind of thing they might do in Fool Moon. Wearing ice skates, Sobelle chooses an audience member (a young woman named Kelly at Thursday night’s show) and woos her with wine and a salad. He makes the salad on a tabletop, shredding the lettuce and chopping the carrots with his ice skates. He also does an impressive amount of dancing on the tabletop in said skates.
The final act involves a magic trick, or an illusion really, akin to the bottomless carpetbag Mary Poppins uses to dazzle the Banks children. But Sobelle’s mostly wordless version is a lyrical musing on life, from youth and work and dating to parenting to retirement and death. It’s absolutely extraordinary, beautiful even, and I was a little sorry when the show reached its inevitable end. It gets kind of cozy there among all those boxes, with audience members playing along, scurrying out of the way when Sobelle needs the space for his act and quickly settling into a new space.
It seems so simple, the idea of musing about life and stuff amid so much stuff, but this artful creation is carefully calibrated and impeccably designed (directed by David Neumann, lit by Christopher Kuhl, sound designed by Nick Kourtides) so as not to seem overly designed, but spontaneous and random. But isn’t that life – seemingly so chaotic and overstuffed and yet with so much, especially the end, that is absolutely certain.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Geoff Sobelle’s The Object Lesson continues through Oct. 18 as part of the Curran: Under Construction series at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$50. Visit www.sfcurran.com.