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Hotel Cassiopeia (review)

From: Theatre Journal
Volume 59, Number 1, March 2007
pp. 132-134 | 10.1353/tj.2007.0049

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In Hotel Cassiopeia, several characters contemplate what to put in a shop window: A clay pipe? Seashells? Broken glass? Balloons? A map of the starry sky? The head of a porcelain doll? They envision objects to catch the eye of passersby who might think, "If I had one of those, then I'd have a complete life." Such shop windows are evocative of the work created by American collage artist Joseph Cornell, who filled tiny wooden boxes with pocket watches, coiled springs, maps of the stars, thimbles, seashells, broken glass, children's alphabet blocks, and other carefully placed objects. Using the stage as their palette, playwright Charles Mee and director Anne Bogart blended poetry, visual images, media, sound, and the unique artistry of the SITI Company's actors to explore Cornell's inner landscape and the universal themes of love, loss, and beauty.

The collaboration between Mee and Bogart dates back to a 1991 site-specific piece, Another Person Is a Foreign Country. In 1992, Mee's adaptation of Orestes marked the SITI Company's debut performance. They share a creative process that involves appropriating and recontextualizing historical sources. Mee, who has posted all of his plays on the Internet, invites artists to borrow text from them, just as he borrows from others. Hotel Cassiopeia incorporates text from Cornell's diaries and letters, some of his favorite movies, Debora Solomon's biography, Utopia Parkway, the writings of members of a Cornell workshop, the writings of Colette, and what Mee calls "the treasures of the Internet." Form and content merge as Mee's collage-like approach to writing mirrors Cornell's artistic sensibilities.

Hotel Cassiopeia is the second of a quartet of plays in the American Museum Series that Mee is creating in collaboration with Bogart and the SITI Company. These plays explore the life and artistic vision of four notable American visual artists. The first in the series is bobrauschenbergamerica, a theatrical collage of images, scenes, and characters that Robert Rauschenberg might have arranged in one of his combines if theatre were his medium. In bobrauschenbergamerica, the artist never appears in the play. In contrast, Joseph Cornell's character is pivotal to Hotel Cassiopeia. It is through Cornell's eyes that we experience the artistic vision and human struggles of this early twentieth-century artist. Bogart and her company magically create this ephemeral world though elaborate sound, lighting, projections, and a multitude of props that appear and disappear in a carefully choreographed dance. The resulting ninety minutes convey moments of humor, tenderness, longing, and insight into the inspiration behind Cornell's creative vision.

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Figure 1
Ellen Lauren (Allegra) and Barney O'Hanlon (Joseph Cornell) in Hotel Cassiopeia. Photo: Harlan Taylor.

As the audience enters, Cornell sits at a white desk with head in hands. On the desk are three blocks, carefully arranged. The set is a constellation of stars on a blue fabric that stretches against the back wall and across the floor. A library-style movable ladder serves as a window and also as placement for carefully placed cups and saucers. The artist's mother (Akiko Aizawa) walks across the stage and shakes out a dish towel. At that moment, the SITI Company's imaginative performance comes to life. The actors come and go carrying white teacups, a single teabag, a ballet barre, a bare tree with intertwining leaves (sometimes decorated with birds), and a large picture frame. The props float up to the heavens then down again to be dissembled and removed from the stage. The physical precision of the actors has the quality of detail that Cornell brought to the placement of objects in his carefully designed boxes.

Mee has sprinkled his play with popular and artistic personalities; some are real to Cornell, others live in his imagination. The Armenian-born, US abstract-expressionist painter Arshile Gorky gives a heartbreaking rendition of the horrors of his life, Marcel Duchamp and Roberta Metta play cards, and film clips from Cornell's favorite movies are projected as he and other characters repeat dialogue along with the stars. Ellen Lauren plays a ballerina identified in the program as Allegra (referencing Balanchine's prima ballerina, Allegra Kent...

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