By Michael Block
Let's not bury the lead. The Object Lesson is an extraordinary work of art. New York Theatre Workshop is known for taking risks. The Object Lesson is a giant risk. One that paid dividends. Created and performed by Geoff Sobelle, this immersive art piece takes you on a journey through objects that make us, us.
When you look at your ticket and see "general admission," you know something exciting is waiting inside. As you enter New York Theatre Workshop, the earlier the better I advise, be prepared to see the space covered in cardboard boxes and a items of the past in every nook and cranny. You're encouraged to interact with the space. Pass along boxes. Sit on others. Through your exploration, you're bound to interact with fellow theatergoers about the experience to come. As you begin to settle into your space within the space, take notice of who you're talking to as you might just be conversing with Sobelle himself. He might share an anecdote about a boxed labeled "Kafka" featuring a cockroach in a bed. Without warning, the center of the room begins to take shape. Through illusion, clowning, and storytelling, the installation piece becomes a jungle gym of wonderment. From there, Sobelle is behind the wheel of The Object Lesson. Broken up into various vignettes throughout the room, often featuring participation from the crowd, Sobelle shares memories propelled by the items he finds or searches for. The nature of the show allows you to have your own personal experience along with the piece. You are allowed to move around. You may interact and be an active participant. Or you can passively sit back and watch. Through story and design, there is a constant theme that recurs in the form of various lights and trinkets. Despite being many stories, it helps to tie the event together. Sobelle’s innate skills for storytelling are on display here. Whether aided by microphone or simply speaking unamplified, Sobelle’s narratives are captivating. He has a natural sentimentality in his voice. It’s soothing. So soothing that his meditative cadence could get you to nod off for a moment. But that could be because there are certain beats that drag on a bit too long. Especially when the pay off is eventually revealed. See that first phone call. But when the gimmick of said first call is uncovered, it’s bound to make you grin.
Director David Neumann guided Sobelle through the room of boxes and paraphernalia. The staging is intricate and precise. Every moment is well calculated. The scenic installation designed by Steven Dufala is planned clutter. At first glance, the space looks like an episode of “Hoarders,” but there is a method to Dufala’s madness. It’s overwhelming. There’s a natural intimacy to this world of boxes. But when the space reaches capacity, there’s a sense that perhaps there are too many people within the experience. The freedom to move is a bit restricted. But don’t worry if you fear that Sobelle can’t move around. Oh he can. He has no worries about moving you around. With attention to detail so important, hitting the mark was essential. The lighting design from Christopher Kuhl was mostly comprised of atmospheric practical lights. If you look up, there are very few theatrical lights in the sky. Just the essentials. Neumann and his team have provided an experience that you can only see to believe.
Geoff Sobelle’s The Object Lesson is overwhelming, just like our own lives. Whether you take Sobelle’s stories at face value or find yourself in the tales, The Object Lesson is continuing to remind audiences the diversity when it comes to how theater can be made and told. If you are fearful of immersive experiences, let The Object Lesson be your way in.