A recent visit to Prince Music Theatre, where Geoff Sobelle and his company are rehearsing their latest Fringe offering, Home, yielded a bit of a shock.
There's a whole house on stage!
The smell of sawdust pervades the air.
"We just finished building," said stage manager Jecca Barry.
But, look, it's a weird house. It's a strange house. Oh, I know, it's a naked house!
With its front missing, it's really a cross-section of a house, a house with its innards open to view.
Welcome to the magical world of Geoff Sobelle, a former Philly resident and alumnus of Pig Iron Theatre who has achieved national acclaim with such previous shows as The Object Lesson and rainpan 43.
A frequent contributor to the Fringe Festival, Sobelle returns this year to present a new show, a musical of sorts based around the idea of the home.
"One of the things I've been excited about in performance lately is the idea of working on a relatively broad theme and taking it from there," Sobelle said during a break. "Like my last show, Object Lesson was about everyday objects, things everyone can relate to. And everyone can relate to the idea of home."
Originally called House and Home, the show explores "the difference between these two things," said Sobelle. "It's something we take for granted, but that's what I'm curious about: When does a house become a home? How does that transition happen for you?"
Sobelle's naked house will appear during the 80-minute show in various stages of its construction – and its decay – said Steven Dufala, a Philly artist, musician, and designer who created the set for Home.
I hear it's going to appear out of the blue. Is there some kind of magic show going on, too?
"Geoff has always been into magic," said Dufala, who is also the designer and co-creator of a second Fringe show, A Billion Nights on Earth. "The whole house is tricked out, from top to bottom, for effects and for magic."
Sobelle doesn't work like a traditional playwright. He devises his shows in collaboration with actors, designers, and musicians. With Home, he brought in as dramaturg his older sister Stefanie Sobelle, who happens to be an expert on the theme.
"I'm a scholar of American literature, and I work specifically on the relation between architecture and literature, of space and narrative, and that's how I got involved in the project," said Stefanie Sobelle, who has taught literature at Gettysburg College since 2009.
"One of the things we're interested in is how in novels, the house fails to become a home. In stories, it usually fails to bring the family together. And in a way, the book becomes the alternative architectural space where that can happen. Books can make things happen that can't always happen in real life."
Plays also, I imagine.
The house in Home is truly gorgeous. A two-story affair with two bedrooms, a spacious bath, kitchen, living room and den, it reveals six men and women all doing their own thing to a playful tango. They iron shirts, they nap, they clean their bicycles, they cook, they clean, they fight, they call, they sit and read, they come and go. They come and go in silence; they don't acknowledge each other. It's as if each character lives in a separate reality.
So, what have I just watched, I ask Sobelle during a break in rehearsal. Was that a musical transition between scenes?
"No, that is the scene itself," he said. "We're doing dance theater in a sense, so this scene will never install into a [traditional] scene."
The characters we encounter are from different times or different eras of the house's overall life, said Sobelle. "So, in a sense, [the play] is a collection of moments through time." The play is not meant to be didactic, he added, "but evocative."
Stefanie Sobelle said she hopes Home will get the audience thinking about broader themes of what it means for a community to call itself a home, "or of the idea of home front, of homeland security, of the nation as a home." Her brother Geoff chimes in: "For me, the show really happens afterward in the bar, when you're talking with your pals. It's a starter show, the start of a conversation."