"It has to happen in your lap," says Geoff Sobelle of his newest genre-defying work "The Object Lesson," which will be presented at Bard College from December 17 to 19. Part theater, part performance art, part magic act, the show unfolds in a space that feels less like a traditional set and more like an art installation. Thousands of boxes overwhelm the single-level theater space, like the aftermath of a life-size game of Jenga. "It's a little bit of your parent's attic, a little bit of an industrial storage facility, a little bit of the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark," says scenic installation designer Steven Dufala about the award-winning set. The show is built around Sobelle's interaction with these boxes, which are filled with objects and bear labels ranging from the particular ("bedside table") to the conceptual ("a starless sky"). The audience is encouraged to interact with these objects too—from participating during the show to sitting on seats fashioned out of boxes.
The adage from imagist William Carlos Williams—"No ideas but in things"—would make a fitting epigraph for "The Object Lesson." Abstractions don't make very useful portals for our thoughts. But things are concrete; we can see them, feel them, smell them. And as a result, ideas can take root within them. Sobelle, himself a Williams devotee, doesn't tell the audience what ideas they're supposed to have when coming into contact with these things. "It's not that cut and dried," he says. "In this show you may have a lot of ideas, but they're coming out of your direct handling of a thing. You are not just viewing; you're holding and touching and speaking and experiencing."
And the show has no shortage of things to behold. Working in pursuit of the "sublime ridiculous," Sobelle started out as a magician and went on to study physical theater at École Jacques Lecoq in Paris. "Absurdity was described to me as an equation of the most amount of effort for the least amount of gain," he says. Think the eating machine from Chaplin's Modern Times. "Part of absurdity is that you take a theme and keep spinning it and spinning it so it keeps getting larger," says Sobelle. "'The Object Lesson' is about the stuff that we keep—the stuff behind your couch or in your glove compartment. That's the seed of the idea. But when you walk into the space it's like everyone's nightmare of their basement or attic or closet."
How you'll react to this space depends on a lot of things—what associations you have with, say, a rotary phone, or a recent experience with packing up a home no longer occupied, or how many drawers and jars you keep filled with ticket stubs, stray coat buttons, or seashells from beach vacations past. Objects carry different meanings for different people, and the resulting contact can push some into unexpected emotional depths. "There's something usually very dark or heavy or maybe hard to swallow," says Sobelle. "But I'm giving it to you in a very warm, mischievous, devilish, light way. It's like a Chekhovian moment where you don't know whether you're laughing or crying, whether you're coming or going. I'm trying to get at something quintessentially human, but I'm allowing space for those experiences to come to you."
"The Object Lesson" unpacks at Bard's LUMA Theater from December 17 to 19—a fitting moment of reflection amid the box-strewn holiday season. (845) 758-7900; Fishercenter.bard.edu.