FOOD, Geoff Sobelle’s new solo performance piece at BAM, seems to begin as a dinner party. A giant table forms both seating and set, and Sobelle, dressed like a waiter at a moderately fine establishment, mingles and greets the guests. (Audience seating at the table is first-come, first-serve, with pros and cons. Pro: you’ll have by far the best vantage point on the action when things get magical, and you’ll be served wine, and possibly a snack. Con: you’ll have by far the best vantage point on the action when things get a little gross, and you will also likely be handed a microphone and made a part–in some cases, a very large part–of the show.) But over the course of ninety minutes, that genteel dinner spins out in many directions, turning from a lightly introspective dialogue on our relationships with food–its tastes and smells, its history, its emotional impact–into a larger, wilder, more unruly journey. FOOD never fails to use food as its thematic spine, but it becomes as much about the limits of the human body and the inhabited planet as about the mundanely gustatory. It moves through the theatrically imaginative (an ice-fishing scene conjured up out of nothing but lighting and sound effects) to the bodily grotesque to the creation of a fantastically detailed alternate environment, right before our eyes. And while at times it lingers a little too long in its moments of whimsy and grotesquery, it’s also channeling some real theatrical magic to remind us of the dark side of our relationship to appetite, as individuals and as a society.
Starting by inviting us to close our eyes and invoking very precisely the place that we are–a large table in the middle of the BAM Fisher; the noise of Flatbush Avenue and the subway station underneath–Sobelle delivers a capsule history of human evolution through our history with food: eating it, looking at it, looking for it, moving in search of it, planting it, killing it. He’s calling our attention to the materiality of our present and our desires, but he’s also playing a little trick–he opens the show by “lighting” a battery-powered candle (and calling our attention to it), which he then reels across the table; by the time it reaches the other side, it’s a live flame. That shuttling back and forth between the artificial and the real, the things that humans build and the things they wrest from nature, will continue throughout the piece. We’re constantly being surprised both by how real and tangible some objects are–food to be actually eaten by the audience by Sobelle; dirt to be dug into with one’s hand–and how fictive and constructed others–that ice-fishing scene, all in Isabella Byrd’s lighting design and Tei Blow’s sound design, nevertheless produces a flopping mechanical fish.
The show loosely breaks into three movements: The first engages with the audience in the room, asking them to describe, to imagine, and to order food. (“Order” for the most part from a script-cum-menu; there’s not an actual kitchen, but Sobelle does bring people what they “want,” from a bowl of cherry tomatoes to a platter of vegetables to the “Arctic char” ice fished from the bowels of the table.) It’s the individual, personal dimension of appetite–what do we consume and desire?
The second, extended almost to the point of delirium, involves watching Sobelle, still in waiter persona, clear the table and then inhale all the leftover foodstuffs and more: two bottles of wine; apple after apple down to the core; several lit cigarettes, and even a chomp on a cellphone. It feels like it has to be sleight-of-hand, but it’s almost more of a magic trick in the fact that it’s not, or not entirely. Like a Coney Island hotdog-eating contest, it inspires both awe and disgust. Hospitality turns to gluttony; generosity to greed–or is it, instead, a miraculous act of efficiency, of reducing waste by absorbing it oneself? We move from experiencing the individual appetite to witnessing it, from appreciating the thought of food to recoiling at the grossest materiality of it.
And the third part sweeps away, literally, all that has come before, shifting from the human register to the societal. Sobelle yanks off tablecloth, cutlery, and all to reveal a giant bed of dirt, out of which a landscape emerges, plucked and pushing up piece by piece from the soil, as miniatures recapitulate the move from grassland to agrarian to urban: a herd of toy bison to a mechanical tractor in the wake of which grain magically pops out of the earth. Then Sobelle sticks his hand deep into the ground and pulls it out covered in oil: grain turns to derricks; derricks to trucks and exurban sprawl; sprawl to skyscrapers popping out of the dirt. As the landscape transforms, an audience member recites a litany of foodstuffs, vaguely chronologically arrayed from the natural and local to the processed and branded.
Because FOOD plays so much with the concreteness of appetite and the way it manifests in the world, it’s fitting that the show comprises such a marvelous array of objects, each with its own specific gravity: from the actual wine bottles, shared with the audience, to the deceptive candle; from the giant chandelier composed of crockery and tableware (designed by Steven Dufala) to the herd of miniature bison; from the tiny motorized tractor that pulls wheat stalks from the earth to the flipping and flopping “arctic char”; from the bowl of apples to the black oil coating Sobelle’s hands.
You can’t help but be amazed at the third-act transformation, and the perfection of the props, while at the same time being vaguely nauseated by its speed and by how thoroughly human activity occupies what once was open space. (Even though, of course, that space is a world upon a table, surrounded by humans and fully contained within a building built by people in a giant metropolis–again, that tension between the natural and the manmade, between the tactile and the imaginary.) We’ve stepped outside the realm of the individual, from being awed at to the rapaciousness of a man to being chagrined at the overpowering gluttony of humankind.