Vaudeville acts with egghead appeal.
By Laura Shin
Geoff Sobelle was having one of his best nights ever, when he nearly broke a fellow actor’s neck. Sobelle calls himself a practitioner of “physical theater”—think clowns, acrobats, mimes or any gesture-driven performance—but when he tossed Quinn Bauriedel onto a conveyor belt, he didn’t think it would land him in the ER.
The show, machines machines machines machines machines machines machines, created by Sobelle, ’98, and Bauriedel, featured several Rube Goldberg-style contraptions. In one, a spoon lifts, shaking a plant that drops a ball that rolls down a gutter and hits a rake that flies into a bowl that is lowered by a pulley to tip a cereal box that dumps raisin bran into the bowl.
“It was this totally absurdist play—the greatest amount of effort for the least amount of gain,” Sobelle says. Truly. It took a month of engineering to put together 37 seconds of action.
Like a Goldberg device, Sobelle seems in constant motion with one thing leading to another, however improbably. He belongs to the seven-member Pig Iron Theatre Company in Philadelphia, stages his own experimental work and acts in polished productions of conventional stage plays. In 2004 alone, Sobelle put on his vaudevillian show all wear bowlers in New York and Germany; performed in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Proof and Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, both in Philadelphia; worked on several film projects; and appeared in two Pig Iron productions—Shut Eye in New York, and Hell Meets Henry Halfway, which went up in Philadelphia, New York, Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania. He plans his schedule almost two years ahead. Not bad for a theater actor who paid $1 for his 1985 Toyota van and says his life is held together by duct tape.
Like Goldberg, Sobelle concocts art from whatever is at hand. The initial 37 seconds of machines morphed into an intricate show that sold out at the 2002 Philadelphia Fringe Festival. The conveyer-belt accident yielded a new prop—Bauriedel’s neck brace.
“It’s like a kid on Christmas Day who plays with the box instead of the toy,” Sobelle says. “You use everything in the room. You use the vacuum cleaner that was never intended to be a prop.”
Sobelle didn’t foresee a stage career, but from age 5, “I was obsessed with being a magician,” he says. “I used to perform in Hollywood at this magic club in the basement of a bank. And I’d do magic tricks for my cousin’s birthday parties.” Entering Stanford, the Los Angeles native planned to be an English professor. But he performed in nine plays freshman year, and as a sophomore he mounted his own productions. Sobelle says he became enamored of theater because it let him apply the “physical specificity” of magic.
Sobelle stopped out before junior and senior years to attend the famed L’Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris, where he met most of his Pig Iron colleagues. The regimen combined athleticism with the imitation of everyday behaviors.
Sobelle’s work is informed by modernism, existentialism, surrealism, and film and theater history. His all wear bowlers, created with Trey Lyford, has two Laurel and Hardy-type characters falling out of a silent film onto the theater stage, whereupon eggs come out of their mouths, sleeves elongate as hands separate from arms, and tablecloths dart off like birds. In a fresh take on the René Magritte painting, a third bowler-topped headless man—Sobelle’s right limbs and Lyford’s left—pulls out a Granny Smith apple and places it under his hat.
Sobelle says his ability to execute physical gags with intellectual content comes from training with some of the big names in theater. Besides Lecoq, he worked with Stanford drama professor Carl Weber, whom Sobelle calls “the closest thing to Brecht himself.” In Shut Eye, Sobelle’s first director was the late Joseph Chaikin, founder of New York’s Open Theater.
“I’ve been lucky since Day One,” Sobelle says. “Very seldom has my work been a windfall financially, but it’s theater, so it’s always going to be scrappy. You have to make it out of the dregs of everything around you. If you don’t, I don’t think it’s that good.” In his short career, Sobelle has won three Barrymore award nominations and the City Paper’s Most Welcome Newcomer Award in 2002. That says something for trash, duct tape and a car that leaks antifreeze.
LAURA SHIN, ’97, is a freelance writer in New York.
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Data is from the past two weeks.