The University of Chicago sociologist Howard S. Becker once demonstrated the ambiguities of concepts using the example of “home” as defined by the US Census bureau. Is it where you get your mail, where you sleep, where you can be reached (in a long-ago time before the cell phone)? The Census department struggled with these different notions because their results revealed that respondents could not agree on the meaning of a seemingly basic question: where do you live? where is home?
“What is home?” is the question Geoff Sobelle asks in his gloriously whimsical show of the same name, and answers by building a house. I mean that quite literally. Though audiences are greeted at the BAM Harvey by a soberingly empty stage, when they leave, it is cluttered with a profusion of furniture, household objects, appliances, decorations, clothing, plumbing, and walls: a house, precisely.
Sobelle, a graduate of the Lecoq school of physical theater, is a master of physical illusion too, so that the house springs up as if organically from the stage floor. If you blink, you might miss the addition of a room or the installation of a toilet (and because these happen so effortlessly – the house renovation of your dreams in terms of simplicity – you really wouldn’t want to). He is helped, to be fair, by five co-builders (amongst them, Jennifer Kidwell, of last season’s acclaimed Underground Railroad at Ars Nova), and a formidable scenic/design team, overseen by director Lee Sunday Evans. The set grows from a single bed to a fully furnished home on two stories in under an hour.
But more than build a house, Sobelle fills it with people, to make it, of course, a home. That sounds simplistic but Sobelle’s intentions are not to pick apart the notion of “home” but to make us feel it (a “home” is, after all, more of a feeling than a set of coordinates or a construction in stone or wood). The actors inhabit the home individually or in small groups, simultaneously, adding different layers of stories to the same four walls. What kind of a home was this house for a single, elderly woman, for a young mother and her son, for a family, or a bachelor millennial …. A charming sequence that takes place in the set’s bathroom begs the question: isn’t home really just where you sit on the john in perfect solitude? David Neumann’s choreography makes these interactions seamless, so that the overlapping narratives (though there is no text in the show) give the impression of watching time-lapse photography or seeing ghosts in the same room with flesh-and-blood people. Musician Elvis Perkins wanders the set slowly, strumming his melancholic poetry on a kind of hand harp/organ, a world unto himself. Do houses vibrate invisibly with the energies of all the people who have lived within them? I’m guessing Sobelle would answer in the affirmative.
He would also probably say that a home is where you celebrate: birthdays, new babies, weddings, graduations and friends, with the occasional – or regular – bacchanal. I don’t want to give too much away but suffice it to say that the house expands like a balloon to encompass all of us in the seats. Everyone gets involved. And again, I mean that literally. Sobelle, the actors and Evans prove extraordinarily deft at marshaling an ever growing cast on stage, and it is as much fun watching the party morph into its next iteration as it is to observe fellow audience members step through the fourth wall and become part of the performance, in surprising and delightful ways. Like the best parties, there is wild laughter, people doing things they didn’t imagine they ever could or would, and an infectious energy.
And yet, it isn’t just a party either because life is definitely not one and a home is certainly more than that. In the wake of one of the most destructive hurricane seasons on record, and with forest fires shutting down the city of Los Angeles, we don’t need much of a reminder of the trauma of losing one’s home, irreparably, which is also where HOME leaves us. We’ve seen the piles of personal possessions left on the sidewalk to dry with a “Do Not Take” sign. We’ve known it too, in NYC. Home is perhaps everything we own but it isn’t everything we are. Not to read too much into a show that is completely apolitical, I did feel inspired by this celebration of “home,” understood not as a fortress against the outside world but as a place of welcoming and inclusion of the people of all walks of life and backgrounds who intersect our lives. A lot of lives intersected on the stage of the BAM Harvey, and though we played at being “at home” with each other, perhaps we took the pleasure of that openness and community back into our lives, to open our own homes a little more to the world.