"Can I put my hand on your shoulder?" performer Geoff Sobelle asked me as the lights dimmed. I respond in the affirmative. Then I feel his hands, both of them, wrap around the back of my neck. "Can I put my hands here?"
"OK..." I respond, more tentatively this time. Then Sobelle puts a microphone in front of me. I hear a voice in my ear, it sounds like it's coming from a great distance. I have to really focus to make it out. It's a woman speaking. She tells me to put my hands on the table in front of me. Then she tells me to repeat after her. And for the next five minutes (though it felt like 10), I become the show.
"In the beginning...." the woman says. I repeat it. Then she begins to talk about how we used to eat simple things like leaves and grass and drank water. Then we ate fruits and vegetables and meat. But as time passed, the things we ate became more and more complex, more processed, more treated. Chicken and corn have given way to impossible meat and high fructose corn syrup. And all of that was fed into my ear and I spoke it into the microphone.
I was hyperaware of all 200 eyes that were on me, how my voice sounded, if I was saying everything properly. It was mortifying.
But in the defense of Food, this theatre piece by Geoff Sobelle that I attended, I did it to myself. I was in Edinburgh to write about the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. But I wanted to see what else was happening in town. And I heard the American artist Sobelle was presenting a new piece as part of the Edinburgh International Festival before taking it to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the fall. And the Edinburgh run was completely sold out. And it was billed as a dinner party. So obviously I had to go get an advance look.
I knew it was going to be interactive, but I didn't expect it to be quite so interactive.
When you enter the space at this atypical dinner party, you see a gigantic table laid out in the middle of the theatre (there were audience seating on either side of the table, for those less inclined to participate). The table is covered in a white tablecloth, with a red runner, and place settings.
But when I sat down at the table, I immediately sensed something was amiss. I could see the remnants of something red on the tablecloth (hopefully spilled wine and not something more sinister). And the table itself didn't feel quite even. In fact, the surface seemed soft. Not so soft that it would topple over a wine glass. But not stable, either. Curious.
I looked up, and the gigantic chandelier above us was actually made, not of glass, but of plastic pieces.
The dinner party conceit is not a gimmick. It's part of the fabric of the piece, as Sobelle (channeling the world's most eccentric maitre d) frets over us. He pours some people a red amber liquid, and then invites them to recall what memory that liquid evoked. A woman said it smelled like when she was a child and she went into a hospital.
Then, Sobelle walked around passing out menus and asking people what they wanted to order. One man ordered a baked potato; Sobelle threw some dirt on the table, watered it, and then voila, presented a potato. Another woman ordered fish; Sobelle jumped onto the table and put on a parka. Then mist slowly arose from the table itself, the temperature decreased, as Sobelle seemingly cut a hole in the table, put a fish hook in, and....caught a fish. He then pulled a fish out, still wiggling, smacked it onto the table, and then placed it on a plate. (Steve Cuiffo was credited as the co-creator/magician in the piece which explains some of the apparitions.)
It was surreal.
It is rare for a piece of theatre to be a true multi-sensory experience. But here, audiences were invited to smell, taste some wine and food, and touch the dirt under our fingers (I won't explain why there's dirt, you'll just have to see the piece when it comes to New York in November). And through this plotless production, we're invited to think about how we spend most of our modern lives mindlessly eating and looking at a screen while we're eating, without actually contemplating (or even enjoying) what it is we're eating and where it comes from. And how we've come so far from those simple beginnings when food was grown and farmed, to food now being created in a lab.
And it's all done through a piece so interactive, and whimsical and funny at times, that even the five year old next to me was enraptured the entire 90-minute running time. As it progressed, Food became even wilder, more complex—but I won't spoil it because it is about to go on an American tour. But it is safe to say, at this dinner party, even though you won't be eating much, Sobelle will give you plenty to chew on.
Food will next play at Arizona State University October 21–23, and again at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival November 2–18. Learn more about the show here. To read more about Playbill's month-long adventure in Edinburgh, click here.