You walk into the performance space at New York Theatre Workshop and are greeted by towering heaps of cardboard boxes filled with old junk. But is it junk? Someone saw fit to hold onto these clothes, books, toys, family photos, letters, kitchen gadgets, diaries, electronics, and other artifacts. Will they come in handy some day? What do they mean, and to whom? Why keep such things? Why keep anything?
These are questions you are invited to ask when you enter the theater, before Geoff Sobelle‘s The Object Lesson even starts. You are encouraged to open the boxes, remove objects, and give them to strangers — a touch we found very moving. Put away in storage, half-forgotten, these objects could just as easily be priceless mementos as worthless ephemera.
There is much to delight in as you explore the objects, and there were huge parts of the room that we did not even get to. We found in one box, for example, a running cassette player with headphones you could put on and hear a French lesson. In another box, there were several telephones; we picked up one receiver and listened to an absurd conversation between a belligerent telemarketer and a defensive customer.
Amid the whimsy is a dose of melancholy. Some of the objects hidden in these boxes could be dripping with meaning for whoever stored them. But holding them in our hands, we were struck by how they lose their significance when devoid of context, and how we ourselves hold onto objects that probably seem stupid to others.
As a performance artist, Sobelle is first-rate, and the vignettes that make up this show are stunningly choreographed. Some are deceptively simple, as when he speaks one side of a conversation into a telephone while unpacking boxes and commenting on the objects he has kept. He answers the phone later, conversing with himself using the recording he has made moments before. Other vignettes are more visually impressive; in one scene, he invites a woman from the audience to dinner, then unpacks a box of salad ingredients. He dances on the table in ice skates, chopping up the vegetables to serve her while making grand romantic gestures. It was the perfect mix of planning and audience participation. We won’t spoil the last scene, but the finale is a tour-de-force of illusion and nearly wordless storytelling.
Steven Dufala’s scenic installation design is superb. The entire space is used effectively and the mountains of objects are both beautiful and — for those of us with anxiety about having too many possessions — potentially panic-inducing. We were also impressed by Christopher Kuhl’s lighting design; at various times the lamps around the performance space, which had previously blended into the piles of boxes, light up to suggest a cozy attic in which the nameless character has stashed away the leavings of his life.
This is an elegant show that made us think about the objects in our own lives. The lesson of the show — that we all hold onto things we don’t need, even if we know we don’t need them — is a simple one. Possession is a two-way street. But knowing that may not make it easier to get rid of those books you will never reread, or those vacation photos you will never look at again. One of us (Chrysler) recently gave up all his possessions except for the true essentials. It was a difficult process and had to be done in stages, but in the end it was a relief. One thing The Object Lesson does brilliantly is convey in tactile terms just how complicated our relationship to objects — and the decision to part with them — can be.