Geoff Sobelle’s House Party – ‘HOME’ at BAM

Photo by Maria Baranova

Home is where the toilet is. And the bed, and the closet, the kitchen, the refrigerator, the dining table, the crash-landing chair, the banisters, rug, chandelier, bookshelves, study, crib, and the stairs (if you’re lucky enough to live in an actual house).

While attending Geoff Sobelle’s HOME, playing as part of the New Wave Festival at BAM through December 10 (tickets start at $28), all of the above furnishings will be encountered, constructed right before your eyes – and maybe your eyes won’t always believe what they’re seeing, for Sobelle’s work relies heavily on what one might describe as “sleight-of-staging,” which I’ll posit here is a cross between what a magician does with objects (cards and the like) and what a director does with design and blocking. It’s certainly a step beyond mere virtuosic stagecraft (the kind where something happens with the general stage picture that makes you go, “ooh”), although there’s plenty of that on hand too; but HOME pushes past stagecraft into the realm of the magic-show-type tricks, at times prioritizing its sleight-of-hand-filled “fun house” approach over building a sustainable narrative or emotional infrastructure. Perhaps its biggest trick of all is that, despite spending much of its energy on the technical efficiency and focus required to make these illusions work as opposed to matters of the heart, the show still manages to land.

HOME starts from nothing – an empty stage – with Sobelle’s entrance through the house. He sets up some shop lights, and is handed a three-panelled frame of a wall, which he proceeds to cover exactingly by stapling painter’s plastic to its front. He stands it up, glances at the audience as if to say, “Okay, so at least that worked ,” and then he moves it to reveal – suddenly – a bed and lamp that have appeared out of nowhere in what feels like about one second. This is the first trick (sorry, “illusion?”) of the show. There will be many many more.

A great deal of pleasure can be derived from watching Sobelle set up and execute stage magic. He is an extremely charismatic trickster and it’s (a little too) easy to just sit back and watch him work. You’ve perhaps gathered from the photos of the show that from that bare stage there will emerge an entire house, raised in only a few moments, and packed with tricks of its own. The beds throughout the show are constantly populated by what appears to be one person and then, with just a swish of the sheets, out comes another. The shower curtain comes heavily into play in a stunningly executed bathroom-ritual scene featuring the entire ensemble. A door is never just a door, and the refrigerator appears inhabited. The sheer speed that characters move through the house, appearing downstairs fully dressed when they might have been naked behind the shower curtain on the second level in what felt like four seconds ago creates both diversion to set up the next moment while simultaneously functioning as a ‘trick,’ in that it delivers another little oomph of bedazzlement. How did they get there?

That bedazzlement, though, begins to ebb once the house (and its inhabitants) have sprinted through its full set of possibilities. Sobelle knows better than to fully lean into repeating the tricks, and so the midway point of HOME is an interesting, slightly troubling place to be – the stagecraft now delivering less magic than it did before, as we’ve learned to anticipate that which it might try to wow us with. The show, up to a point, has been wordless (although there is a singing troubadour who exists more as ‘trick’ than character in the overall set-up – i.e., he’s part of the architecture, not living within in), and so it doesn’t seem to have the capacity to move us past this moment.

What we’re left with – at this particular ebbing point – are the characters who inhabit the house. Once the magic wears off, one might realize that the action has been so efficient and wow-inducing that there hasn’t been much time for the characters to become known. They’re cogs in a machine, rather than living, breathing creatures (I was reminded of Jacques Tati’s Playtime in terms of surface-level antics). Yes, the performances are flawless – the performers are Josh Crouch as resident teenager, Sophie Bortolussi as a sort of mom-like character, Jennifer Kidwell, looking here like a grad student renting a room, Elvis Perkins as aforementioned troubadour, Justin Rose as a frazzled dad-like character, and Ching Valdes-Aran, who wanders through the house in her own bubble – but outside the fact that they are all living in the same house without generally being aware of each other’s presence (a staging device that suggests that all time is present at once, a sort of overlaid picture of this house’s full history of inhabitance), there isn’t much else to know about them. And, in this pause of realization, mid show, you might – in the audience – wonder what else Sobelle could possibly have got up his sleeve.

Stop reading here if you’re still planning to see it.

If you’ve already seen it, you know what the answer is.

As for the rest – the those in the house will quickly become aware that the answer is, well, the house – i.e., the audience themselves. It’s a bigger trick that’s been hidden in plain sight, and any familiarity with Sobelle’s previous work might have given it away – he’s always dared to allow audience members to play a part in his worlds, but never at this scale.

How it starts: young Josh waves at the house (audience). He goes out. He picks someone, brings them back onstage, whispers directives. This audience member executes a few tasks, like getting a glass of water, well enough for the rest of us to suspect that they are planted – an actor, not an actual, as one might call it, “volunteer.” And this is repeated, over and over again, with more and more of the audience finding themselves up onstage, and the rest of the audience perhaps still suspecting, or assuming, that these are all plants, because how is this really possible, that this many (uninitiated) random volunteers are seemingly doing what they’re supposed to be doing, not (for the most part) overacting – how is this working?

You might keep asking yourself this, still assuming that some of if not all of the audience participants must have had some pre-knowledge of getting pulled up onstage, until you yourself are pulled up onstage. At which point you find yourself faithfully following the muttered directives issued your way from each of the performers, being given a ridiculous costume, dancing amidst a chaotic and mad house party (literally) that somehow manages to elicit, you will later be told by one of the few audience members who managed to remain in the audience, the final scene from Fellini’s 8 ½.

So – okay. But isn’t audience participation just another gimmick, a stale magician’s device? Given that HOME is as much magic show as theater, how is it functioning here in a way that’s any different from the girl in the box getting sawed in half? In that example, the audience participant is, in essence, verifying the illusion. There’s a sort of humiliation involved – c’mon up, don’t worry, nothing’s going to happen to you, just lie in a box and let me saw you in half. It’s an illusion with a set-up, and the participant acts both as a proxy for the remainder of the audience, there to ascertain with authority that there’s no funny business (so far as they can tell) going on, and also as the punchline.

How are Sobelle’s audience participants different? Well, for one, the sheer accumulation of them sets them apart – near the end of the house party, they appear to outnumber the performers at least three to one. But there’s something else happening, too – it’s a calculated risk, engaging that many potentially rogue agents at once, but it also creates a bizarre sense of community, and so long as you enter into a community that’s behaving itself, you are also inclined to behave, to play by the rules, even if it’s instinctively. This respectful engagement, I think, plays a part in how Sobelle manufactures more humanity out of this moment than one might anticipate. It’s not like he’s letting participants run wild, but there’s an ambitious degree of randomness in play.

There are several moments when a series of audience members are released from their duties, allowed to return to their seat, leaving a smaller group onstage. Finally, there are only five or six left – yet, the stage is still, in this deaccumulation, inhabited by only audience members (instead of its previous actor inhabitants – essentially a wholesale replacement of cast).  A few of the remaining participants are issued microphones (oh no) but then begin to successfully, thoughtfully narrate the look, smell, feel, and layout of a former home, from childhood perhaps. (Do it yourself, now, as a test, and then just imagine speaking that into a microphone in front of 800 people without any rehearsal.)  It’s really hard to believe this wasn’t scripted. But, so far I could tell, none of it was. It was all, for lack of a better way of putting it, “real”.

That in-the-moment realness, one supposes, is what finally allows the heart into play. It’s easy to maintain emotional distance from ‘characters in a play,’ especially when those characters are barely characters at all, more suggestion than articulation. It is much more difficult to maintain that same distance with someone from the audience who could have been you, or is you, appearing onstage unexpectedly, doing their best without any preparation. This immediacy, the charm of the unexpected performer, generates a flash of internal empathy that is stoked from glow to flame, and suddenly, a show that had previously felt somewhat feeling-averse is abruptly infused with something approaching joy.

And just as quickly as it came, it goes again.  The last audience members take their seats in the house, leaving the home empty once more, its walls again covered in plastic, which billow out at the audience as fans begin to blow.

As visually engaging and dazzling as it is, the takeaway (other than, how did he do it?) is left largely up to the individual. For me, HOME suggested that “home” is just a trick that the mind plays. It’s a structure that we fill with our own illusions, and then, unsatisfied with those, we try to share it with as many people as we can find – come! Come see the home that I built! And then they leave. And then we leave, looking for somewhere we can start again, build again, a new place to believe in, an old place to forget.

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