“Hotel Cassiopeia,” from playwright Charles L. Mee and director Anne Bogart, aspires to theatricalize the consciousness of Joseph Cornell, an eccentric, reclusive artist who assembled a variety of everyday objects into genteel shadow-box sculptures. But a promising start quickly descends into staid repetition, without ever deepening into a stimulating consideration of Cornell’s work, his odd life or the relationship between them.
While he gained acclaim for his work and was admired by prominent surrealists and later by pop artists, Cornell lived his adult life in the basement of his mother’s house in Queens, caring for his brother Robert, who had cerebral palsy.
Joseph would scour Manhattan for the objects he used for his pieces — old maps, fake birds, ballerina images, corks, bar glasses, etc. — and then retreat to craft them into imaginative, carefully constructed works that generally are interpreted as considerations of human memory.
Less a play than a pondering, “Hotel Cassiopeia” compiles text from Cornell’s letters and diaries and incorporates relatively long clips from his favorite films (he had a special fondness for Lauren Bacall). As the audience enters, Joseph (Barney O’Hanlon) is already sitting at a white desk, facing away in a position of great pensiveness, staring at the constellation map that dominates Neil Patel’s set.
Once the performance begins, the first 10 minutes or so establish the full visual palette — that blue starry background, a white leafless tree and various balls that float above the stage. The eclectic human figures include, among others, a ballerina with wings (Ellen Lauren), a waitress (Michi Barall) and an herbalist in Victorian period clothing (Leon Ingulsrud). They enter in elegant, choreographed fashion, engage in shards of dialogue with Joseph and occasionally with each other, and dart off.
There’s no real narrative, although we get pieces of biography, and the piece has a too-large emphasis on Cornell’s socially awkward interactions with women and his childish fondness for sweets.
Bogart’s pretty visuals craft a mood that captures the evocative fragility of Cornell’s work. But after it introduces the elements it will work with for its over-extended 85-minute running time, “Hotel Cassiopeia” remains awfully vague and repetitive in the manner it approaches Cornell as subject.
Whereas Cornell would find different ways of combining similar elements within a structure while still imagining new worlds each time, this show manages only an unrefined sameness that borders dangerously on the soporific.
Maybe it’s just that Cornell’s subtle sensibility simply proves a poor match for Bogart, a far broader, more aggressive artist. Bogart is best at modern ironies, putting things together in a way that can be jarring; Cornell was resolutely sincere — abstract yet also old-fashioned — assembling items to stress their unity. Bogart seems to be restraining herself here, and she works hard to capture the gentleness of Cornell’s work, but she and Mee end up with the worst possible effect, communicating Cornell’s art as pure, syrupy sentimentality.
First produced earlier this year at Louisville’s Humana Festival, “Hotel Cassiopeia” reps the second of four planned Mee-Bogart collaborations on American artists. The series began with “bobrauschenbergamerica,” a show Bogart’s SITI Company took on tour; and will continue with “Soot and Spit (the musical),” about autistic Idaho bookmaker James Castle; and “Under Construction,” about the master of pop Americana, Norman Rockwell.