Geoff Sobelle begins his genteel performance art piece Home (at Berkeley Rep through April 21) by pointing two white flood lights at the audience. At the top of the stage, a row of yellow lights is already aimed at the crowd. Forcing people to squint at the start of a play, instead of being able to focus, seems like a counterintuitive approach to the building up of a fourth wall. But the method to that partially blinding madness serves a deliberate purpose — to spring the first of many visual illusions, or pranks, depending on your mood, upon the viewers.
Sobelle, along with the rest of the cast, is listed as a “performer,” not an actor. When he walks on stage, his physical movements — from the way he moves his arms and shoulders to each jaunty, balletic step — are more pronounced than your average actor appearing in a dramatic play. His mimed expressions, like that of a silent film star, prepare us for the mostly wordless, two-hour performance ahead. With the lights trained out at our eyeline, he drags the skeletal beams of a framed wooden wall on stage and starts stapling long strips of clear plastic to them.
Once assembled, he hoists it up, and the background lighting subtly shifts. He pulls the frame away, and a bed appears behind it from the shadows. Sobelle, fatigued from his efforts, undresses and stretches out under the covers. After tossing and turning, he pulls the sheets over his head only to uncover somebody else in his place. Home uses doorways the way C.S. Lewis used a wardrobe as a means to access parallel dimensions.
This first scene manifests a stark, dream-lit mood that promises the unkempt emotions of an abstract expressionist painting. After the bed and the small wall are pushed away, a cavalcade of construction workers marches on stage. Every one of their moves is choreographed as they assemble the interior design features of an entire house. They bring in sockets, door frames, a stove and refrigerator, a bed, toilet and kitchen table. Most of this newly arrived structure is also see-through, like a doll house that opens apart at its midsection. The workers, dressed in matching blue coveralls and hard hats, have repeated, comic near misses but never bump into each other. You can see the clockwork precision that went into the rehearsal process, and hear the ticking motion of a metronome in the background.
After the house is put to rights, a tall, lanky musician dressed in a white suit walks out singing and playing a mandolin (later switching between it and a guitar). Elvis Perkins alters the atmosphere in the theater in the same way that Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields does. His range is closer to Death Cab for Cutie’s vocalist Ben Gibbard, but the combination of his lyrics and strumming add an eerie pressure to the room. You suddenly feel transported, hovering in an outer space orbit that’s very far from home. On a bulletin board in the lobby, Berkeley Rep asks the question, “What does the idea of home mean to you?”, inviting responses from theatergoers with multi-colored post-it notes. As the performers act out domestic routines, often in tandem or shadowing each other, Sobelle explores this question by elevating mundane acts. One woman brushes her teeth, another does laundry. Someone else takes a shower while another performer noisily takes out the trash. Sobelle builds these early scenes around themes like loneliness, busyness, ennui and sadness.
From remaking these everyday activities into a dance that we all perform, Home then turns away from a beautiful abstractness towards an ordinary literalness. By depicting the interior life of a house, Sobelle had drawn out a portrait of the characters’ psyches and, in a technique usually confined to film, he managed to imply the passage of time. We were seeing ourselves at thoughtful moments, intimate and ablutionary ones, when we’re just making due with some minimal sense of purpose. But he went on to open the play up to an extended session of audience participation.
Sobelle does this to mark the occasions we celebrate at home and he needed more bodies on stage to convey the feeling of actual parties. With audience members in tow, he recreates a birthday, a graduation, a marriage and a funeral. You could see that those who participated were as happy as larks. And every abstract, distorted line straightened up and connected. Every ugly, clashing color found a harmonious twin. Every shadowy, cobwebbed corner was dusted and brought to light. The initial mysteries found in Home flew out the door, waving through the flapping plastic sheets. They’d been activated by an artificial wind.
Home, through April 21 at Berkeley Rep, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. $30+; 510-647-2949 or berkeleyrep.org