In an auditorium in Scotland, the American theater artist Geoff Sobelle is hosting a dinner party. The stage is taken up by an enormous square table, laid out with plates and cutlery. Around three of its sides sit twenty-four audience members. At the center of the fourth is the waistcoated figure of Sobelle, who brings wine, hands out menus and takes orders. When one lady requests a baked potato, he produces a bucket full of earth and empties it out onto the table; he plants a seed in the mound, waters it and waits a while before reaching in to pull out a large spud.
After several skits in this vein, Sobelle withdraws into himself and proceeds to binge silently: He eats one apple, then another, and then another and another, followed by a bowl of cherry tomatoes, a few radishes and carrots, a concerning quantity of ranch, a number of raw eggs, an entire onion and some bank notes.
Sobelle’s one-man show “Food,” which runs at The Studio through Aug. 27 as part of the Edinburgh International Festival, is billed as “a meditation on how and why we eat.” But, aside from a short preamble about the primordial nature of our relationship with grub, there is little attempt to intellectualize. Audiences primed to look for meaning will find none here: Silliness is the end in itself; the enjoyment is in the buildup of nervous energy in the room as Sobelle carries out his buffoonery with the focused determination of a doctor performing lifesaving surgery.
Sobelle trained as a magician, and then as a clown, before turning his hand to absurdist theater. In an artistic mission statement on his website, he declares that he sees his body of work as “a colossal practical joke.” This checks out.
Midway through the show, Sobelle carefully gathers up the guests’ wine glasses, then returns to his seat and violently pulls away the tablecloth, amid much clattering of plates. Underneath, it turns out, is not a table, but a field of dirt: The set is transformed into one big muddy landscape. A remote control tractor trundles across this terrain, and sheafs of wheat sprout upward in its wake. The trappings of modern civilization materialize; toy trucks are handed to the diners and passed around the perimeter of the dining table-turned-landscape. Sobelle clambers onto the scenery, sticks his hand in it and strikes oil; tall buildings start popping up here and there. We begin to suspect there may be someone underneath the table.
The audience was bewildered, but charmed, and for 90 minutes reduced to a state of childlike wonder, reveling in the frisson of anticipation, awkwardness and unease. The immersive setup produced some amusing unscripted moments, like when a theatergoer’s cellphone got swept away as Sobelle removed the tablecloth; his demeanor as he handed it back was a picture of dumb officiousness, both apologetic and vaguely affronted.
Sobelle’s comedy of affable idiocy may be witless, but it is also timeless — every bit as primal, one suspects, as our love of eating. (There’s a reason “Mr. Bean” is still so popular around the world.) In drawing much of its mirth from sheer ridiculousness or grotesquerie, “Food” channels a comic sensibility from less exalted sectors of the entertainment world — think provincial circus troupes, or competitive eating championships.
In the comparatively rarefied environs of the Edinburgh International Festival, the show’s sensibility feels like an ironic curio. I was reminded of Freddie Mercury’s line about wanting to bring opera to the masses: Sobelle, it seems, is doing the inverse, bringing low culture to the cosmopolitan elite. A perverse kind of altruism, perhaps.
Through Aug. 27 at The Studio, in Edinburgh; eif.co.uk.