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But the playwright Charles L. Mee, and SITI Company under the artistic direction of Anne Bogart, see the potential for theatricality in Cornell's work and they have created a lyrical, exquisitely performed interpretation of the man's art and life. Called Hotel Cassiopeia, based on the title of one of the artist's assemblages, the piece is making an all-too-brief appearance in the Brooklyn Academy of Music's 25th Next Wave Festival.
Joseph Cornell was born in Queens, New York, in 1903, and lived on the borough's Utopia Parkway until he died seventy years later. Raised by a controlling mother, and committed to caring for a brother crippled by cerebral palsy, the shy Cornell made few relationships outside his home. The people in his world were images of ballet dancers and movie stars, particularly women, to whom he wrote letters and occasionally sent his creations.
It is this reclusive universe that Mee and the extraordinarily skilled members of SITI Company explore and illuminate. On the enormous stage of BAM's Harvey Theatre, so recently the site of the RSC's overblown King Lear, scenic designer Neil Patel and lighting designer Brian H. Scott work delicately and selectively with space and light. They focus our gaze on the center of the stage, where they have painted the stage floor and flats to resemble the square, blue, patterned interior of one of Cornell's boxes. A sphere resembling a large copper-colored balloon rests on a bar high above the floor. A white ladder leans against the flats. At the edge of the stage stands a small, cream-colored desk, the sort one might find in a child's room. Here, when the production opens, sits Joseph (Barney O'Hanlon) in a hemisphere of light, his back to the audience—poised, in a sense, to create both the play and the assemblage Hotel Cassiopeia.
What transpires during the next 90 minutes is a seamless evocation of a life lived small but creatively. The characters that people Joseph's universe enter the stage as though he has called them in from the wings: Ballerina (Ellen Lauren); Waitress (Michi Barall); Astronomer (Stephen Webber); Herbalist (Leon Ingulsrud); Pharmacist (J. Ed Araiza); Mother (Akiko Aizawa). Once there, they join Joseph at his desk for tea and chocolate cake (Cornell was apparently addicted to sweets), or they move onto the square of painted floor as though the artist were guiding them, positioning them, or simply letting them mill about in his head. They scatter when Mother's harsh voice calls Joseph's name, as though bringing her son to heel.
If there is a drawback to Hotel Cassiopeia, it lies in the repetitive nature of the imagery. Cornell's artistic vocabulary was limited. One has only to see a retrospective of his work—see hundreds of those boxes in one exhibit—to realize how narrow his vision was. Mee and Bogart's theatrical vocabulary follows suit. There is only so much they can invent around a ballerina costumed for Swan Lake, snippets of a black-and-white film starring Lauren Bacall (an actress Cornell adored), and copper-colored spheres of various sizes that descend from the flies.
What Mee, Bogart, and the exceptional cast do convey is a portrait of the artist as observer. Cornell, like so many artists, was an outsider. As Hotel Cassiopeia illustrates, he used his imagination and creativity to defeat his awful aloneness.
Try onlineseats.com for great seats to
The Little Mermaid
Shrek The Musical
The Playbill Broadway YearBook
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide