Review: ‘The Object Lesson’ at Curran: Under Construction (*****)

by Charles Kruger
Rating: ****

Geoff Sobelle with astonishing intimacy from the top of a mountain of boxes in
Geoff Sobelle addresses the audience with astonishing intimacy from the top of a mountain of boxes in “THe Object Lesson” at Curran: Under Construction.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

“The Object Lesson” is quite unlike anything I have ever seen before. It is at once an art installation, a social event, street theatre, performance art, and a traditional play. And it succeeds, brilliantly, at all that.

The piece is an exploration of the objects that one man (and by extension, everybody) encounters in a lifetime: objects of memory, physical objects, emotional objects, accomplishments, the accumulation of one’s years of living, all interconnected in the play of one’s life. It is not a story, but an experience.

The experience, in this instance, begins outside the theatre as our experience of the object of the theatre itself is transformed by entering not through the lobby but by means of an alley and a door opening directly onto the stage. What we find on entering is not what we expect in a theatre. It is a warehouse where a party is taking place. There’s drink, and conversational groups wandering about, studying what appears to be a lifetime’s accumulation of junk. Boxes are piled on boxes piled on boxes piled on boxes. On a large stage in a large theatre that is a lot of room, as the ceiling is 50 feet above. We are encouraged by our hosts at the Curran to examine the boxes, open them up, see what’s inside. They are labeled in ways both familiar and mysterious: one box reads “magical yard sale finds,” another, “stuff I wanted when I was seventeen,” another, “kitchen stuff,” another,
“adolescence,” and so on through hundreds of boxes. There is, in addition, a huge card file like you’d find in a library fifty years ago. The labels look normal enough, just letters, but some have words: the drawer marked eggs is full of rubber eggs; red stuff is full of red ribbons, tacks, cloth; there’s “string;” there’s a drawer marked “Paris” that contains a pair of ballet slippers, and so on and on…

The audience discovers a world to explore along the fine line between vintage and crap.
The audience discovers a world to explore along the fine line between vintage and crap.

Audience members wander about in a state of chattering excitement — in fact, I have rarely experienced such interest and exciitement in a theatre prior to the performance. If this had been the entire show — just the art installation of boxes and cabinets and the people (who gradually, we realize, are objects themselves) — this would have been a satisfying evening. But there IS a play to follow.

After a time an an actor, Geoff Sobelle, who also created the performance and whose character is never named, wanders in pulling behind him a carpet. He wanders about the boxes, gathering props to make a living room. There is an old arm chair, a crank phonograph vintage 1910 or so, an old black telephone, and so on. He sits in the chair and cranks up the phonograph. Then reaches into the phonographs sound horn to pull out a little cassette recorder that has actually been playing the music. Objects, it seems, are not what they objectively seem. He talks on the phone. We hear the rest of the conversation through the cassette tape. It is all fascinating, and somewhat confusing at the same time. There are so many objects of so many sorts to make sense of. And somehow, as we gradually realize that we are seeing an entire life laid out before us in amidst the boxes of memories and junk, time seems desperately short.

“There is a fine line,” the actor informs us unexpectedly, “between vintage and crap.”

For the next hour and a half, Sobelle leads us through the memories of a lifetime, sometimes realistic, often surreal. What is important and what isn’t is unexpected: a dinner date is important, but so is the memory of a particular traffic light.

There is physical comedy: In a tour de force sequence, Sobelle prepares a meal for a date that consists of a fancy salad that he creates by slicing up the vegetables by dancing upon them wearing ice skates. He even taps in the ice skates. It is screamingly funny, dangerous, strangely touching.

There is a great variety of audience participation. We all feel like the performers’ personal guests. He makes eye contact. He touches. He wanders among us. He offers us bread and cheese and even passes around a bottle of wine, from which quite a few audience members take pulls. Have you ever seen THAT in a Broadway house?

Well, I’ve accumulated close to a thousand words here — letter objects — and I’m not at all sure I’ve communicated anything about this amazing show.

Everybody’s experience will be different: there is so much to see, so much to relate to, so much to consider.

It is, indeed, an object lesson.

It is, indeed, extraordinary.

You should, indeed, buy a ticket.

“The Object Lesson” plays at Curran: Under Construction through Sunday, October 18th. For further information, click here.

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“The Object Lesson” created and performed by Geoff Sobelle, produced for Curran: Under Construction by Jecca Barry. Director: David Neumann. Scenic Installation Design: Steven Dufala. Lighting Design: Christopher Kuhl. Sound Design: Nick Kourtides. 

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