It was a little before 6:30 on a recent weeknight, and the kitchen in Geoff Sobelle’s West Village home was in chaos. Two toddlers zoomed around on a ride-on truck and begged him to read from an “Alice in Wonderland” pop-up book. “In a minute,” Sobelle told his son as he stirred artichokes that were simmering on the stove. All the while, he talked to a reporter about his solo show, “Food,” which is running as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave festival through Nov. 18.
“This is like a three-ring circus,” Sobelle, 47, said.
He had invited me over for dinner with his family — his wife, Sophie Bortolussi, a longtime “Sleep No More” performer; and his two children, Louise, 4, and Elliott, 2 — or, as he wrote in an email, “my chaotic household as I try to get two toddlers to eat.”
“It’s INSANE,” he’d added.
Sobelle’s nightly domestic juggling act is akin to the intertwining, overlapping and colliding threads of audience participation, sleight-of-hand and physical comedy in “Food,” a plotless, absurdist “meditation on how and why we eat,” as he described it.
During the 90-minute show, which Sobelle created with the magician Steve Cuiffo (“A Simulacrum”) and co-directed with Lee Sunday Evans, he traces the history of food from the days when buffalo roamed to the present. For the first 40 minutes, he embodies a waiter at a fine-dining establishment who takes orders from audience members seated around a massive white-clothed table, making a cherry pie and an apple appear on a silver platter as if by magic.
But the show quickly devolves into a satire of human greed, with Sobelle consuming, at one previous performance — brace yourself — six apples, a bowl of cherry tomatoes, a bowl of lettuce, what one critic called “a concerning quantity of ranch,” a half-dozen asparagus stalks, five carrots, a raw onion, three bowls of rice, a 22-ounce rib-eye, a baked potato, a bowl of egg yolks, a bottle of wine, a fish, a cherry pie, another bottle of wine, a lit candle, a pack of cigarettes (gulped, not just smoked), four napkins, part of a phone and a few dollar bills.
That’s about 9,000 calories in 15 minutes. And he does it twice on Saturdays.
“Matinees are seriously rough,” said Sobelle, who performed the show at Arizona State University last month and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August. “I’m definitely still getting used to it.”
How can he eat that much? Does he have to train like Joey Chestnut?
“It’s like freestyle Olympic eating,” he said, as his wife burst into laughter. “You just have to do it.”
That seems to be the theme of Sobelle’s life, whether it’s helping his son realize his dream of dressing up as both a fire truck and a car for Halloween or creating shows that push the boundary between absurd satire and purposeful meaninglessness.
“The power of the shows is provoking something in the audience,” he said, “not tying a bow around the subject of food.”
“Food” is the third in Sobelle’s series of participatory theater shows exploring the uncommonness of common themes. The first, “The Object Lesson” (2013), examined our relationship to everyday objects, and in the second, “Home” (2017), he raised a house onstage for a meditation on what makes a home; all three premiered at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.
“I knew I wanted to play with the ritual of gathering around a table,” he said about “Food.” “And that lent itself to thinking about fine dining and the spaces where it happens. Especially places like BAM and the Edinburgh International Festival, because they’re kind of fancy.”
He enlisted Cuiffo, a friend of more than 20 years whom he has collaborated with on a half-dozen shows, to help him create the magic tricks and physical comedy.
“Geoff is really great at going deep on an idea, whether it’s an intellectual idea or a physical theater trick,” Cuiffo said in a recent phone conversation. “He’ll keep going at it until he finds these really funny or magical or poignant moments.”
Like all his shows, “Food” is heavy on audience participation. Sobelle asks people to share memories evoked by the wine he serves, or to describe the last recipe they made. He lives for the unpredictability of each performance.
“Sometimes it works like a charm, and sometimes I just work hard to make it look like it’s working like a charm, or sometimes it just doesn’t work,” he said. “But that’s the adventure.”
Dinner was now ready (“Time to eat!” he called to the kids), and he and Bortolussi spooned roasted carrots, cauliflower and butternut squash into wooden serving bowls, which he ferried over to a table in front of giant mirror.
“We’ve been vegetarian on and off for years,” he said. “It’s about sustainability.”
But what about the steak that I watched him wolf down during a video recording of the show’s premiere last year?
“If I’m working, I don’t have to be a vegetarian,” he said. “The character’s not vegetarian.”
When he was 16 and living in Los Angeles, he said, he visited a school on a marginal farm in Vershire, Vt., where he harvested food that other students had planted. “That was pretty profound to understand where it was coming from, and that you were part of the process, instead of just going to the supermarket and getting something shrink-wrapped,” he said.
But to be clear, he said, his show has no moral message.
“I don’t want to tell people what to think,” he said. “I just hope it tickles them and their curiosity, and that it provokes something that they then want to go talk about at the bar or wherever their next destination is.”
For the last part of the performance, Sobelle invites the audience to do just that sort of reflection, violently pulling away the tablecloth to reveal a field of dirt, on which he enacts a continuous scene with minimal dialogue that serves as a CliffsNotes of human cultivation and consumption.
Absurd physical comedy has become a hallmark of shows created by Sobelle, who abandoned his childhood dream of becoming a doctor and a priest after seeing a production of “Cats” when he was 7 (“I wanted to be Rum Tum Tugger,” he said), to study English at Stanford, where he mounted what he called “experimental, D.I.Y. theater shows.”
“Even my first experiences in high school with plays, I was more excited by the stuff beyond the script,” he said. “The things that were translated outside of the words, or in addition to the words.”
After his freshman year, he spent a year abroad at the famed Jacques Lecoq school in Paris — Geoffrey Rush and Julie Taymor are alums — where he studied physical theater.
“That was a real turning point,” said Sobelle, who counts Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton among his influences. “It was all about looking at theater before language.”
The aspect of “Food” he enjoys most, he said, is the unpredictability of the performance. Sometimes an audience member eats the cherry pie he has set down. Sometimes a cellphone gets swept away when he removes the tablecloth. Sometimes audience members try to deconstruct the show in their responses to his prompts.
“It’s not a play, but a performance,” he said, “one in which the audience plays just as big a role as me.”
His son chose that moment to overturn a bowl of aioli, which Bortolussi rushed to mop up. Sobelle handed her a napkin. (“We always do at least one spill,” he said.)
“OK,” he called to the kids. “Eating time is swiftly coming to a close.”
That was fine with them: Elliott was snapping photos with a toy camera, and Louise was leafing through a French picture book.
“You don’t always get a cooperative audience,” he said.