Play about assemblage artist Joseph Cornell doesn't quite add up

Hotel Cassiopeia

By Charles Mee, directed by Genevieve de Mahy

At Single Carrot Theatre through April 29

There’s a reason Joseph Cornell’s collages are in museums and the ones adorning your friend’s dining-room table are not. Anyone can cut pictures out of a magazine or buy tiny objects at a junk store and glue them on a poster board, a jar, or the inside of a box, but juxtaposition is not the same as meaning. Cornell’s small, wooden, glass-fronted boxes are endlessly fascinating because each one is a complete, tiny world with its own inner logic—balanced without being cluttered, mysterious without being random.

Playwright Charles Mee has tried to apply the principles of collage to his play about Cornell, Hotel Cassiopeia, now at Single Carrot Theatre. Mee incorporates verbal fragments from the artist’s diaries and letters, quotes from Deborah Solomon’s Utopia Parkway biography, and lines from two of Cornell’s favorite movies: To Have and Have Not and Algiers. Mee’s stage notes encourage each production’s director and designers to find visual equivalents for Cornell’s boxes: dancing ballerinas, red balls, silver rings, star maps, and white feathers.

Unfortunately, Mee’s efforts at collage are less like Cornell’s than those on your friend’s dining-room table. Interesting images—both verbal and visual—are thrown together but they never quite add up to anything nor do they shed much light on Cornell himself. Director Genevieve de Mahy, six different designers, and a valiant cast gamely try to breathe some life into Mee’s script but its hollowness defeats them.

The floor, walls, stage, and stairs of Single Carrot Theatre have been painted a dark blue and splattered with white paint to suggest, semi-convincingly, a sky of stars. The audience is seated on the two long sides of the narrow, rectangular space and the actors range across the entire length of it. In the center sits a cable spool turned into a table at Bickford’s Cafeteria, where a waitress (Alix Fenhagen), a ballerina (Katie Rumbaugh), and Lauren Bacall (Gina Braden) bring Cornell (Nathan A. Cooper) plate after plate of desserts. Perhaps the sweets are meant to come from automat windows not unlike Cornell’s boxes, but that isn’t clear from the staging.

At the North Avenue end of the theater, a large box is filled with twigs, butterflies, giant eggs, and the sleeping figure of Cornell’s brother Robert, who spent his life trapped in their Queens rowhouse by cerebral palsy. Joseph Cornell was trapped there too, not by disease but by a fear of the adult world—and by a domineering mother (Braden). As a symbol of this entrapment, the big roll of white wrapping paper atop Robert’s box divides the family’s house in two at one point, covers up the stars on the floor at another, and finally encases Cornell so completely that he resembles an Egyptian mummy.

Cornell did take the No. 7 subway to midtown Manhattan to visit movie palaces, art galleries, and cafeterias, but he always returned to his mother’s house by evening. He even befriended surrealist artist Marcel Duchamp (Paul Diem), abstract expressionist painter Arshile Gorky (Rich Espey), Chilean painter Roberto Matta (Nathan Fulton), and ballerina Tamara Toumanova (Fenhagen), all of whom make appearances in the play. But Cornell always seemed trapped inside his arrested sexuality; he felt more comfortable talking to actresses on the screen (and we see clips from To Have and Have Not and Algiers projected on the walls) than the women he invited over to the house for afternoon tea. Of course, it didn’t help that after these visitors left his mother insisted that he boil anything they had touched.

All these basic facts about Cornell’s life are accurately reported in the play, but Mee is never able to solve the biggest riddle about the artist: How could a man so repressed, so isolated, so dominated, create such spellbinding art? Mee, in fact, never has Cornell create anything; throughout the show, he is a purely passive figure. We see him confronted by images of clocks, rings, ballerinas, birds, books, and feathers, but we never see him taking those images and doing something with them. This reflects a profound misunderstanding of what artists are—if nothing else, they are doers.

Cooper does a fine job of portraying the passive character Mee has created. With his tousled red hair, blade-like face, and gangly limbs stuck through a gray suit, Cooper constantly wears a startled look, as if simultaneously intimidated and intrigued by the world outside his house—especially its women. We share his fascination with Fenhagen’s ballerina, who actually pirouettes en pointe; Braden’s mother, who mixes weepy neediness with steely bossiness; and Rumbaugh’s would-be girlfriend, who does her best to thaw out the frozen Cornell.

But none of this addresses the central question: How did such miraculous art bloom from such unpromising soil? The Single Carrot production has some riveting moments—most notably when a death is depicted by torn-up wrapping paper—but those moments never add up to a story that takes us from here to there, from the glossy exterior of Cornell’s reputation to the interior of his heart.

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