You might say that Joseph Cornell lived in a box within a box.
From his early teens to his death in 1972 at the age of 69, the artist stayed firmly tied to a home in Queens he shared with his mother and invalid brother.
When Cornell ventured out, it was chiefly to rummage for any number of objects that he would use back home to create the assemblages that made him famous — each contained in a little box with a glass front.
As art critic Robert Hughes writes, "that glass, the 'fourth wall' of his miniature theater, is also the diaphragm between two contrasting worlds. Outside, chaos, accident, and libido, the stuff of unprotected life; inside, sublimation, memory, and peace."
In his 2006 play "Hotel Cassiopeia," currently onstage at Single Carrot Theatre, Charles Mee opened an imaginative window into those boxes by fashioning an intricate, Cornell-like box of his own.
The work contains an assortment of visual images and verbal bits and pieces — excerpts from diaries, letters, classic movie dialogue. Along the way, other great artists — Marcel Duchamp, Roberto Matta, Arshile Gorky — pop up for philosophical discussions.
Some things in the mix are fascinating, others banal. Some scenes are taut and revealing, others flaccid and diffuse. Gradually, through the disparate elements, a portrait of the reclusive Cornell emerges, a man who admires Lauren Bacall, waitresses and ballerinas, but watches most women from afar; a man with a child's delight in sweets (a litany of his favorites desserts provides one of the play's more endearing moments).
There is no real narrative, no clear path to a cathartic peak. Somehow, though, the material generates a genuine theatrical experience, one with a strange beauty, a curious pull.
The work is well-suited to Single Carrot, which, of course, routinely thinks outside the box and, in this case, reveals a knack for getting deep inside one, too. It's among the most effective productions I've seen from the company.
Director Genevieve de Mahy paces and guides the action with a fluid touch, using every corner of the space effectively. That space has been nicely enhanced by set designer Lisi Stoessel with suggestions of Cornell boxes, now life-sized (a particularly affecting one serves to place Cornell's brother in the scene).
Nathan A. Cooper does affecting, subtly nuanced work as the sweet, scared artist who has "to sit on the edge of my bed for a few hours/waiting for the time of lifting/ waiting for the time of evenness/the time of naturalness/arriving in the mental clearing."
Cooper fills in a lot of the blank spaces between such poetic expressions, adding color and depth. His gentle movements generate a certain poetry, too.
Gina Braden impresses as Cornell's cruelly stifling mother and also does a nice stand-in for Bacall.
The real Bacall turns up, too, with Humphrey Bogart in projected scenes from "To Have and Have Not." There are also clips from "Algiers," with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr. In both cases, Cornell recites the lines of the male stars, one way, I suppose, he can feel he has a semblance of relationships.
There are assured, colorful contributions from the rest of cast: Katie Rumbaugh (Ballerina, et al.), Alix Fenhagen (Waitress, et al.), Nathan Fulton (Herbalist/Matta), Paul Diem (Astronomer, Duchamp), and Rich Espey (Pharmacist/Gorky).
The play could easily become tedious or pretentious, but this nimble and imaginative staging avoids such a turn.
Many of the deftly choreographed scenes leave vivid impressions, none more so than at the point when Cornell realizes his brother has died. Here, paper, a recurring theme in the production, is used poignantly as cast members seem to fulfill that wonderful image in Shakespeare: "Take him and cut him out in little stars."
Music is used superbly throughout the production (Steven Krigel did the sound design). Mee specifies certain pieces, including Satie's "Gymnopedies" and the exquisite recording of Handel's "Where'er You Walk" by beloved British contralto Kathleen Ferrier. Those and the other selections used here, from Messiaen to a vintage "Am I Blue?" (with Espey adding rhythmic sweeps of a broom), add a great deal to the cumulative effect of the venture.
"Hotel Cassiopeia" provides much to ponder and to savor. It may well leave you suspended for quite some time at an unexpected angle — to borrow one of the Pharmacist's lines — in a "geometry of memory, thought and feeling."