Step back far enough and “Hotel Cassiopeia,” the SITI Company’s rumination on Joseph Cornell, resembles one of the artist’s own creations. His collage-style boxes, in which random objects form a beautiful tableau, are celebrated for their unexpected grandeur. Similarly, the play seeks cosmic significance in the details of Cornell’s life. Boxed in by the proscenium arch of BAM’s Harvey Theater, “Hotel Cassiopeia” presents its own bio-collage of Cornell’s influences and obsessions and then considers how they merged into artistic inspiration.
With Anne Bogart directing and Charles L. Mee providing the script, it’s no surprise the production opts for impressions over a linear narrative. Still, there’s a clear emotional story.
Joseph (Barney O’Hanlon) is a shy, awkward man who gets nervous around women, collects trinkets from junk shops and dotes on his brother Robert (J. Ed Araiza), who has cerebral palsy. Although uncomfortable, his real-world experiences explode into gorgeous theatrical images. Time and again, the aud is shown how an artist’s perception can alter anything.
Take Joseph’s interest in actress Lauren Bacall, shown in video projections and as a character played by Ellen Lauren. In one scene repping a press junket interview of Bacall, the actress climbs a white ladder wearing a long black cape. A picture frame flies in to enclose her, and behind that, a projected image of a pearl necklace encircles both actress and frame. A white, leafless tree and a white ballet bar are suspended on either side of her, while down on the floor, Joseph’s mother (Akiko Aizawa) looks up impatiently.
And so a celebrity interview transforms into a reflection on two women Joseph loves.
In this segment and throughout the piece, Bogart makes the assembly of such an image as gripping as the final product. Her mastery of rhythm keeps actors moving with slow, graceful purpose, and her arrangement of bodies in space is always sumptuous.
Set designer Neil Patel deserves particular credit for making the show accessible. He creates a clear divide between the actual world — Joseph’s white desk, sitting downstage center — and the imagined, which unfolds on a giant map of the stars that covers most of the floor. Characters travel freely between the two realms, but it’s grounding to see the distinction.
Mee also floats buoys of clarity through his script, which includes random movie quotes and references to Greek philosophy. Joseph’s monologues about his lonely existence are beautiful — and touchingly performed by O’Hanlon — and they remind us that an artist is a vulnerable human.
Ultimately, the flights between fancy and reality invite a type of meditation. It’s hard to stay engaged for the entire 90 minutes, particularly since some of the images are aimless, but a wandering mind is almost appropriate. If audiences respond passionately to bits and pieces of what they see, they’ll be echoing the collage spirit of the production itself.