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Geoff Sobelle is in his element when reveling in humanity’s excess, and contemporary consumption provides him more than enough fodder for his Curated Fringe production of FOOD.
The play begins around a large, roughly 40-foot square table draped in white and with place settings along three sides for about 30 people. The fourth side is Sobelle’s stage, his platform as the show’s sole performer and the evening’s valiant sole waiter. The backdrop is a richly wallpapered partition conspicuously hung with William Holbrook’s The Bear Dance, and the effect of an upscale French restaurant but for a large, well-crafted chandelier that on second glance has been made from takeout containers and plastic bottles.
Setting the table
Sobelle’s performance begins with a guided meditation, and as the audience of dinner guests self-consciously closes its eyes, Sobelle’s velvet voice takes us back, back to our earliest selves as amoebas absorbing food from the watery world around us. Slowly, he brings us through our eating evolution to the present day: now he is our waiter, pouring wine and taking orders. He pours more wine, and the setting changes: we are in an American diner. Someone will order eggs; another, a farm-to-table potato. Both arrive in absurd forms, and the frenzy picks up until—pause—his shift has ended. Kicking back, our waiter makes eye contact and takes a bite out of a patron’s uneaten apple. Finishing the apple, he picks up another. And another. And suddenly he is ravenous.
Sleight of mouth?
Is it sheer, unadulterated gluttony? Is it sleight of hand? Sobelle is a master of illusion, and his bacchanalian binge is a moment of technical magic in a show filled with it. He’s also not afraid to prolong these moments, and the show sits in carefully constructed illusions long enough for audience members to become acutely aware of the palpable feelings such illusions can evoke both in them and in their fellow diners: incredulity, astonishment, disgust, humor, discomfort.
Pulling off such sleights of hand requires impeccable timing, and Sobelle and director Lee Sunday Evans have put a lot into pulling it off in the intimate context of FOOD. It’s evident in the manipulation of the show’s soundtrack and from the construction of the show’s miraculous dining table, both of which change and morph as the performance continues. One of the most dazzling moments is when Sobelle heaves off the gigantic white tablecloth to reveal barren earth; as the house lights dim, he slowly teases a piece of cotton. On cue, thunder rolls through the room as the cotton flashes and sizzles from within. Suddenly, in a pirouette on a knife’s edge, the audience has seemingly transformed from human diners into gods, seated around a barren plain as a storm breaks.
Craft over rhythm
There are dazzling changes in perception and scale throughout, and there are also shifts that occur among those in attendance: FOOD, like the other performances in Sobelle’s series (The Object Lesson and HOME), calls for the participation of its guests. But only to a certain degree, and not with any degree of precision, presenting a few practical implications that are less appetizing (during the performance I attended, Fringe staff were called in to politely shush several of the diners’ side conversations).
Overall, FOOD is an impressively crafted, well-executed show. However, the performance struggled at times with rhythm, to the detriment of its exquisite construction: while certain long moments (such as Sobelle’s eating spree) emphasized the absurd, others felt stilted and tended to drag (an exhaustive recitation of foods from “kumquat” to “Rice-a-Roni”). This was particularly true toward the play’s end, which rang trite. While it’s not worth discounting an entire performance for the ending, it nevertheless left a disappointing taste after what might have otherwise been an astonishingly good meal.
What, When, Where
FOOD. By Geoff Sobelle, directed by Lee Sunday Evans. $45 ($15 for balcony seats and for students; $2 for FringeACCESS holders). Through September 18, 2022, at FringeArts, 140 N. Columbus Blvd, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.
Proof of Covid-19 vaccination is required to enter. Audience members are welcome to remain masked, but organizers recommend removing masks during the performance. FringeArts requests that all ticket-holders take a rapid Covid test the day of the performance, and anyone who tests positive should contact the box office to arrange an exchange or refund.
FringeArts is a wheelchair-accessible venue.
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