nytheatre.com review by David Johnston
October 10, 2007
Director Anne Bogart and writer Charles L. Mee have brought their most recent collaboration, Hotel Cassiopeia, to BAM for the Next Wave Festival. For this piece, Bogart and Mee have taken on the work and life of Joseph Cornell, the American collagist and surrealist. Cornell, who lived and worked in Queens in a house on Utopia Parkway, made discomfiting and remarkable boxes filled with driftwood, buttons, dolls, bits of glass, and newspaper clippings. Like Cornell's boxes, Hotel Cassiopeia is a collage—one using bits of text, music, movement, and Cornell-inspired set pieces. In the piece, Cornell is a shy goofball who tends to his beloved disabled brother, takes long walks in Manhattan, and is dominated by his controlling mother, who's sort of a slightly nicer version of Norman Bates's mother.
The "collage" approach to theatre can sometimes prove thrilling, as in the work of Pina Bausch recently presented at BAM. Bogart and a team of talented collaborators and designers toss in classic films, period songs of the '30s and '40s, ballerinas—even Lauren Bacall makes an appearance to chat with Cornell. Images and scraps of dialogue are juxtaposed, discarded, and reexamined, as the creators furiously seek to recreate Cornell's visual world, to recreate for the audience the experience of looking through his eyes.
This is an interesting theatrical conceit with exciting potential, and while there's wit and intelligence in the work, there's also a curious lack of cohesion in Hotel Cassiopeia. It occurred to me that if Mee's text were re-cut and rearranged, it would have little or no impact on the evening. Text is here to provide a springboard to visuals, and while the visuals are often compelling—a woman ascending a ladder looks trapped in a slowly rising frame—they also feel as if they are happening in a vacuum. There's not much happening under the pretty stage pictures of Hotel Cassiopeia.
What juice there is—the "sparkings" of the night—is provided by the performers. Barney O'Hanlon is a fine actor, and as Joseph Cornell he has an awkward grace reminiscent of William H. Macy. Ellen Lauren gives elegant turns as Bacall, a boozy saloon singer, and a ballerina who befriends Cornell. Akiko Aizawa is effective as the monster-mother. But as hard as they work, for me Hotel Cassiopeia was a dull patch.
The problem is not that Bogart and Mee's work is obscure or inaccessible to the average theatergoer. The problem is, the insights they serve up on Cornell are pretty small beer. They show him as an artist who used the every day detritus around him to make beauty. He's a shy chap who finds it difficult to connect with women. He was devoted to his brother, and mourned his death. But at the end, when Cornell lovingly orchestrates onstage objects into a new composition, one can't help but think of Sunday in the Park with George, a work which affords a much more visceral response to the act of creation. Stage artists working at this level can dig deeper into the interior life of such a man.
A look at Cornell's pieces in MOMA yields delight and discomfort. Some of his work illuminates, some disorients, and some whispers of dark things. His art could be beautiful, but it was never pretty. Onstage at BAM, Charles Mee and Anne Bogart have opened Cornell's bright boxes and spilled the contents, but the boxes stubbornly refuse to give up their secrets.