At the center of Geoff Sobelle’s The Object Lesson is a box. Actually, that’s a grievous understatement. For this marvelous little piece that carried off the 2014 Best of Edinburgh award, the entire space of the BAM Fisher is stuffed with hundreds of cardboard boxes, strewn pell-mell and piled one on top of another, floor to ceiling. They provide makeshift seating for the audience who is invited to browse through their heteroclite contents (CDs, a deer head, silverware…). As the show begins, a few will be broken down to reveal standing lamps, a rug, a table, a phonograph and a leather chair where Sobelle, as a rumpled Master of Ceremonies in a comically tight jacket, will begin to put us under his spell.
But there is another box as well, a magical, bottomless one, that holds, in addition to clocks, cables, clothes, cigars, phones, stuffed animals, golf balls, dirty diapers, slippers, pictures, and much, much more, a whole man’s existence. If T. S. Eliot reluctantly measured life in coffee spoons, Sobelle weighs its accumulated detritus and finds it worthy of memorializing, and maybe even celebrating.
Sobelle is a self-styled “artist of the sublime ridiculous,” but he might be described more accurately as a sublime artist of the ridiculously ordinary. The Object Lesson is instantly recognizable as another inspiring product of the physical theater of the French pedagogue Jacques Lecoq, with whom Sobelle trained, and whose elementals reside in the keen observation of the actor’s environment.
The bittersweet story that is incrementally unpacked here is laced with nostalgia for Sobelle’s years as a theater student in Paris. A long reminiscence of a weekend in the Cévennes mountains sustains an extended thematic thread about perception, and a cheap Eiffel Tower souvenir is fished out of that life box as an ironic reminder of lost youth (other boxes will produce some very ripe goat cheese, a baguette and a bottle of wine: all shared with the audience in a bit of profane “bread breaking”). How life events are distorted through the refracting lenses of time and memory to reside as trinkets and old trophies that might one day emerge from a box, is a primary concern here.
But objects are not the only symbolic recipients of the stories we tell about our pasts, although Sobelle makes a powerful argument for their enduring resonance. First, there are those stories – fictions or lies or half-truths – we choose to remember about our lives. A pair of conversations that are recorded, then played back in different contexts, are used to very cleverly string out this line of reflection. A bit of a hoax is also played upon the audience, with “plants” giving the illusion of an interactive audience experience. But if a pair of ice skates worn on a first date can evoke very different emotions in the original lovers some years later (or a scene touch us differently when the illusion of unscripted participation is invoked), language is even more suspect here; it is shifty, porous and has no materiality whatsoever. All the more tellingly then does the show’s ultimate scene with the box unroll itself in almost complete silence.
Sobelle dexterously assembles a charmingly quick-witted and inventive tale about a life appreciated through its debris. The unwieldy, arms-thick bundles of phone cables he tears out of that box turn eventually into tree roots, connecting the organic and inorganic, the visible and invisible, in one last sleight-of-hand. Perhaps what we leave behind is a more faithful record of who we are than what we can ever say or do.