Hidden objects take center stage in Philly Fringe performance

The 17th Annual Fringe Festival begins this weekend in Philadelphia, offering two and a half weeks of theater and dance performances that are experimental and outside-the-box.

One of the highlighted performances in the “Presented Fringe” program, however, is emphatically inside the box.

Geoff Sobelle’s “The Object Lesson” is inside more than 1,000 boxes, all piled into the performance space at Christ Church Neighborhood House in Old City. Audience members have to root though the stacks of boxes to find things to sit on. At a preview performance this week, a few dozen audience members instinctively assembled themselves in a circle in the middle of the room, creating an almost primal space inside of which Sobelle performed.

Many of the boxes are labeled in quick Sharpie gestures:

• All The Things I Got That Don’t Fit.• Stuff I Broke I Wish I Hadn’t• Things My Dog Ate• Stuff Of Yours That I Lost And Didn’t Tell You

“These are kind of curated,” said Sobelle. “So they are in and of themselves like little art objects.”

Sobelle and his team of designers, including artist Steven Dufala, put objects in each box, some to be retrieved during the performance and used as props, some to be discovered by nosy audience members, some never to be noticed at all.

“I think of this as an installation as much as a performance. When you’re putting everything in motion to be seen, it’s performing. Whereas in an installation, you put everything in the space and the audience comes and goes — maybe they look, maybe they don’t,” said Sobelle. “It’s like a cat versus a dog. A dog is a performer. A cat is an installation.”

The performance involves a main character, played by Sobelle, literally surrounded by his own baggage — physical, mental, and emotional. Throughout the piece, Sobelle pulls objects out of the boxes and into the action of the play, turning each item — a loaf of bread, a pair of ice skates, a traffic signal — into an opportunity for a story, an awkward confession, or a clowning routine.

Unpacking a life

“He’s unpacking, trying to get to the bottom of something, through the objects. He’s assembling the artifacts like a crime scene, to assemble a history. Which, I think, is impossible,” he said. “So there’s a sense of futility.”

Sobelle has been tinkering with “The Object Lesson” for about a year, workshopping it during commissioned residencies at the Lincoln Center in Manhattan and on Martha’s Vineyard. The performance at Christ Church will be its official premiere.

“The original idea was there would be a massive dirt pile — a big pile of earth,” said Sobelle. “There would be a fixture that would pull things out of the dirt, and attached would be a massive root system. That came out of a bit of dreaming.”

The Lincoln Center, concerned about the cleanliness of their theater, squashed that idea. Sobelle translated the dirt pile into storage boxes filled with the detritus of memory.

“There’s a sense that, as things comes out, they are valuable just for a moment,” said Sobelle. “As they come out, you’re like, ‘Oh! This!’ Just for a moment this thing that is preserved in a cardboard box has life again. And then it goes away.”

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