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Theatre Review: Geoff Sobelle’s The Object Lesson Wryly Looks at the Fragments of Our Lives

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theatre Review: Geoff Sobelle’s The Object Lesson Wryly Looks at the Fragments of Our LivesThe Object Lesson plays at the Wexner Center through Saturday, October 31. Photo by Max Gordon.
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The Object Lesson, by Geoff Sobelle, brought to Columbus by the Wexner Center for the Arts, is a witty, touching look at the way we let things build up. And how we often hold on to the object or the experience maybe longer than we should.

The show begins with the audience turned loose on the Mershon stage, outfitted to resemble a haphazardly organized storage space. Around the walls are boxes almost piled to the rafters with marker labeling. These labels go from the concrete, “Mexican Wrestlers,” “Transformers,” to more abstract, “Disguises” with a strike through it, “Stuff That Used to Be Important.” Some of the boxes are witty jokes in themselves, a box with an Air Supply record and a scuba mask, and some are almost chilling Pompeii as seen by Ballard frozen-in-time apocalyptic snapshots like a broken radio still pouring out music or a box labeled “Coffee Stuff” with a half-drunk cup of coffee surrounding by Styrofoam packing. The West wall is dominated by a huge card catalog with ever more boxes on top.

In the midst of this, Sobelle enters, taking his shoes off and pulling incongruous things out of boxes, like Rod Serling starring as Mr. Rogers.

A scene from The Object Lesson. Photo by Jeremy Abraham.

A scene from The Object Lesson. Photo by Jeremy Abraham.

Then he takes us on a digressive, disjointed journey through memory. We’re given to believe his character is hollowed out, trying to rebuild some kind of a life. He swings between almost frantic speech and long stretches of silence, and the silence goes from a mournful stillness to a slapstick that walks Chaplin’s line between funny and mournful.

As he alternately assembles one room then another, going through boxes, he pinballs through time and draws certain members of the audience into the play directly. There are easily relatable details blown up to show all their cracks – the tragic realization that “the best week [you] ever had” was when you were 20 and nothing else will be in the running again, a lover walking out the door and a pathetic phone call where she admits she doesn’t think of you. There’s an extended, deeply sad riff on how much of what we consider conversation is really just talking to ourselves.

But what makes this sing, in addition to Sobelle’s charm and physical prowess, are the surreal, dreamlike details. Lamps turn off when blown on, like candles; bottles of wine suddenly pour only dust; electronics work without being plugged in; boxes hold far more than they should like an old stage magician’s act. Cheese stays good for 20 years, people tap dance in ice skates on a dinner table. Throughout, he finds and tries to root out a gnarled undergrowth of tangled branches and cords in scenes that almost feel like he’s tearing the entrails out of some great beast.

No descriptions do this justice. David Neumann’s direction and David Parker’s choreography choreography are invisible until they blind you with their magic. Nick Kourtides sound and Christopher Kuhl’s lighting are fascinating – tying their phenomena to physical sources while also breaking the rules in artful, delightful ways.

The Object Lesson is a little too long and gets a little bogged down in repetition but it’s a dazzling look at what’s holy, what’s just stuff, how fine that line is, and how hard it is to know when to pare down. It’s a magical piece full of pure joy and classic theatre magic.

The Object Lesson runs through Saturday October 31st with performances at 8:00pm and an additional performance Saturday at 2:00pm. For tickets and more info visit http://wexarts.org/performing-arts/geoff-sobelle-object-lesson

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