With the New York premiere of Food at Brooklyn Academy of Music, there are now two shows in NYC that use food, especially how we consume it, as a way to uncover the inner animal instincts underneath polite society. The other is the posthumous Stephen Sondheim musical Here We Are, based on two films by legendary surrealist Luis Buñuel, one (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) about upper-class folk trying to sit down for a meal, the other (The Exterminating Angel) about upper-class folk attempting to leave a meal. A delight of Geoff Sobelle’s new performance piece, Food, making its New York premiere as part of BAM’s Next Wave Festival, is its similarly surreal and lightly savage spirit, which Sobelle employs in playful, engaging, and at times revolting ways.
I’ll get to the revolting part later. The show, however, starts on a mesmeric note. Armed with a microphone and preceded by a few awkwardly self-deprecating jokes about hypnosis, Sobelle gently beckons us to close our eyes and imagine, with the aid of Tei Blow and Ryan Gamblin’s vividly detailed sound design, a history of humanity’s relationship to food all the way from its primal beginnings to the present day. In setting out the show’s grand ambitions so directly, Sobelle offers a tantalizing prelude for the madness to follow, with the chandelier made partly of empty water bottles designed by Steven Dufala adding to the intrigue.
The rest of the show — which Sobelle created with magician Steve Cuiffo and directs with Lee Sunday Evans — is divided roughly into three parts. Sleight-of-hand tricks and audience participation dominate the first, in which Sobelle serves as chef, waiter, and maître d’ at a fancy dinner party featuring some of the audience members sitting around a large table. Some of that audience participation involves Sobelle prompting people to talk about their food experiences, with two of them at one point being directed to talk simultaneously.
But after Sobelle pours red wine into everyone’s glass, he gets down to creating the evening’s meal in deeply unconventional ways. To one customer’s desire for something produced from farm to table, he plunks down a bunch of dirt on the table, digs around, and produces a potato. Another’s order of Arctic char occasions a sudden dimming of lights (atmospheric lighting design by Isabella Byrd and Devin Cameron) as Sobelle puts on a winter jacket, jumps onto the table, and simulates a windy Arctic expedition for a single (animatronic) fish. More than just a series of whimsical episodes, such gags poke fun at so-called high-end dining: the aura surrounding it and the elaborate, expensive processes that sustain it.
Just as you think the rest of the show will proceed in this fashion, however, Sobelle collects all the diners’ bills, sits down at the head of the table, looks at all the food that’s left…and proceeds to engage in the most epic of binge-eating sessions, consuming just about everything in sight, edible and non-edible, in unapologetically messy fashion. As shocking as it is to see such an act of barbarism right after the table manners of the previous half-hour or so, you may also find yourself feeling shivers of recognition, wondering if you’re any different from Sobelle whenever you find yourself scarfing down food in a rush. You also may be too disgusted and amazed by the spectacle to wonder how Sobelle is actually pulling off this particular illusion.
In its final section, Sobelle offers a visual equivalent of the cosmic universality of its opening. He essentially builds an entire scale-model world on the large dining table from scratch, from its dirt-laden beginnings to the tall buildings that mark modern-day urban development, with audience members moving trucks around the dining table. Sobelle also beckons one audience member to recite a long list of food items, but there’s nothing random about the list: It progresses from natural foods to popular processed items.
According to Food, the development of civilization does not necessarily mean an increase in sophistication when it comes to the food that we consume. But Sobelle’s show is less interested in scoring sociopolitical points than in reveling, with exultant creativity and an unexpected sense of poetry, in the contradictions inherent in society’s attempts to dress up what is, deep down, a fundamental human need. For all its playfulness, this brilliant show has the power to make you look with fresh eyes at a daily act that you probably take for granted — a surefire sign of its worth as a work of genuinely thought-provoking art.