Americans increasingly seem to have a love-hate relationship with “stuff”. Visitors from abroad find themselves amazed at the vast array of artisanal cheese available at any grocery store. Our enthusiasm for decamping to distant exurbs where we can build ever-bigger houses for all of our toys continues unabated by troubles in the real estate market, while the self-storage industry contains to rake in billions annually.
Yet there is also clearly a growing market for the gospel of de-cluttering and minimalism. Joshua Becker’s new best-seller The More of Less (incidentally coming soon in paperback!) espouses the transcendent bliss of downsizing and getting rid of all nonessential possessions. Millions of viewers found themselves simultaneously fascinated and repelled by A&E’s Hoarders and the light it shed on the compulsion to stash away goodies and trinkets.
If the thought of being in a room inundated with so many stacks of junk is overwhelming, you may wish to skip The Object Lesson, a character study of one man’s descent into consumer-driven paralysis now playing at Studio Theatre. An immersive theatrical experience directed by David Neumann, the audience is brought directly into the narrative as they walk into Stage 4, which has been transformed into a storage facility groaning under the weight of cardboard boxes stacked to the ceiling. (I was reminded of the final holding place for the Ark of the Covenant in the final scene of the first Indiana Jones film.) Attendees are encouraged to browse the crates, which contain an array of discoveries for the discerning browser. Finally, they are directed to fashion themselves seats among the clutter on boxes helpfully marked “seat”.
The transition into the show is seamless as Geoff Sobelle, a performer who self-identifies as a “dedicated absurdist,” emerges from the clusters of attendees to direct our attention. Sobelle’s character is a study in isolation – prowling the recesses of the warehouse in search of minutia among the stacks, muttering to himself via a recorder, dwelling on the reminders of long-ago travels and romance awaiting in each box. The wave of nostalgia in his crates even compel him to call up an old flame out of the blue – setting up a painful reminder of how we rarely remain fixed in time, even when our possessions do.
At most shows, an audience member seeking to avoid being an unwitting participant can usually secure a safe spot in the middle rear of the theater– no such luck here. As Sobelle roams every nook and cranny of the space, one never knows if they will be brought into the production next, including one lucky (or not, depending on one’s agreeability) dinner date. By the time the audience is passing around a hunk of cheese and swigging from a (supposedly) ancient wine bottle unearthed from one corner, we are truly all in the mix together.
The Object Lesson
closes June 5, 2016
Details and tickets
Even as the production toys playfully with time, my perception of the minutes passing remained the same. A bit of Sobelle’s pacing goes a long way and long stretches of the narrative are given over to some fairly repetitive shuffling about and an extended period of reflecting upon the changing colors of a traffic light. Some will enjoy the otherworldly experience of basking in the leisurely pace; others may find themselves glancing at the time, especially depending on how sturdy they find the box they’ve chosen as a seat. This reviewer could have found enough to compress in the margins to fit the show into an economical hour, rather than the nearly two it helps itself to.
Regardless, Sobelle’s antics help our laughs and sympathy to come easily. Even in the long stretches of silence, Sobelle conjures a magician-like ability to convey nuanced emotions through sheer physicality. It is rather easy to look upon the accumulation of so many possessions as a sign of a character flaw or malady. The compassion of The Object Lesson is in reminding us of what drives us to hold onto our things to begin with – the desire to maintain a relationship, however tenuous, to our past selves. The dual side of the narcissism and compulsion to accumulate is a genuine desire for human connection.
While billed as a one-man show, Sobelle is sublimely supported by the intricate production design of Steven Dufala. The space demonstrates a tremendous imaginative capacity for how even the most banal of spaces can be transformed, particularly when a chorus of lamps lights up the perimeter toward the conclusion. It is such a unique space that you can easily imagine how you might find yourself lost in it forever.
The Object Lesson . Created and Performed by Geoff Sobelle. Directed by David Neumann. Scenic installation by Steven Dufala . Presented by Studio Theatre’s Studio X . Reviewed by Daron Christopher.
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