The Object Lesson: Not Much to Hold On To in the End
There are boxes upon boxes, piled high to the ceiling. Lamps and more lamps spread around the space that is slowly being filled with audience members. They are spread out, wandering around, unsure about what will happen in this ‘warehouse’ space that last month we were witness to the great Daniel Craig in Shakespeare’s Othello. But this afternoon, the space is not your typical theatre, and this is not your standard beginning of a play. No assigned seats, only boxes, crates, and couches for us to use in no exact arrangement. We find a space to call our own in a corner by a lamp and a wall of drawers. We are handed a box of objects, the contents carefully listed on the outside, for us to play with and examine. We are here to experience the one-man show, The Object Lesson at the New York Theatre Workshop. I have no clue what will happen, so we wait.
This highly acclaimed show, directed by David Neumann, which won first prize at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2014 has been making the rounds, playing in theaters across the country and around the world. Leading us through this pile of boxed memories and magical moments is the fantastically talented magician, clown, creator, and performer, Geoff Sobelle. Easily capturing our attention for the most part of a 100-minute performance piece, we experience the glee and inventiveness of this strange soul and the mountains of mementos that usher forth funny and inventive creations. Tip toeing through the debris (excellent work by scenic installation design: Steven Dufala; lighting design: Christopher Kuhl; sound design: Nick Kourtides), he ushers us through a number of vignettes, some beautiful, some funny, some magical, and some that fail to be any of the above. It’s a valiant attempt of creating something unique. Sometimes the reminiscing and ‘play’ seem drawn out and repetitive, and I must admit, at certain moments when the game has become obvious, the fun dissipates. A game of repetition can feel too long and tedious when repeated a second time. Audience participation adds another layer of entertainment, anxiety (I hope he doesn’t pull me into this…), and audaciousness. At our performance, these participants, especially the one midway through, all brought life and humor into the procedure, adding some true spontaneity and spark into the adventure. Not that it wasn’t there already; Sobelle imbues a humanity and sincerity that is lovely and engaging. But I could also see how one of the earlier moments could result in some deadness as well. It was poetic for about the first third, but then, as with most of the vignettes, the charm starts to wear off.
My only problem with the show is the structure itself. There are moments of humor and wit along side other tidbits of emotional engagement, but spaces so dead and empty that its hard to stay connected. What is the point for these inventive moments of memories and magic? Are we supposed to feel a strong emotional thread, or is this just glimpses into our memories, in the way our mind jumps around when we shift through a box of our own mementos? The over arching theme exploring the idea of objects and memory is too weak to sustain the journey from beginning to end. There are moments when the energy just fades or stalls in the emptiness of the moment. The ending is extremely magical in its delivery but not in its length. What are we to carry out with us once we leave this environmental warehouse? There is little to hold on to. The memory of The Object Lesson will be filed in my own private storage room under ‘enjoyable’, but not much more than that.