I do not know why Charles Mee titled his play about the American assemblagist Joseph Cornell Hotel Cassiopeia. Nor do I know why the play’s innumerable characters include a pharmacist, an astronomer, an herbalist, and Arshile Gorky (thank you, Wikipedia), nor even, at times, why Cornell is the focal point. That is to say, some of these things I can guess from my limited knowledge of Cornell, derived almost entirely in retrospect and from the Internet more than anything that happens onstage. Mee seems interested less in the concrete details of a man’s life than in the art that may be made of them. And in the extraordinary production currently playing at Baltimore’s Single Carrot Theatre, director Genevieve de Mahy and company have made one of the most compelling artworks I have ever seen.
Mee makes his plays freely available online, urging us, Cornell-like, to “build your own, entirely new, piece” from them; you can read Hotel Cassiopeia at http://www.charlesmee.org/html/hotel_cassiopeia.html. Skimming through the text underscores the interpretative challenges that confronted de Mahy, her cast, and her designers. Consider the opening stage directions:
A wall of stars:
or the moon
or a vast star map of the cosmos covers the back wall
[or should it look like a Pollack painting?
splashes and droplets of white paint].
We hear Satie's Gymnopedies on the piano.
A young woman on a bicycle
or a life-size paper cutout of a young woman on a bicycle
or a paper cutout of a giant owl
arcs across the sky
while he speaks.
At Single Carrot, we hear Satie’s Gymnopédies (in several haunting variations). But the wall of stars, the Pollack droplets, the bicycling woman and giant owl … not so much, except insofar as they are seeds for the artists’ endlessly fertile imaginations. No theatre company in Baltimore makes better use of its space than Single Carrot, and in this production de Mahy—with huge assists from set designer Lisi Stoessel, lighting designer Joey Bromfield, and props designer Ben Hoover—raise the bar ever higher. Do yourself a favor and arrive early—you will be invited to explore an assemblage of oversized wooden boxes framing bric-a-brac, birds’ eggs, and countless other treasures.
As we explore, Joseph Cornell (Nathan A. Cooper) enters. He sits politely—even self-consciously, as though he were intruding on our privacy rather than the reverse—at a round table that resembles a threadless spool set on one end; flipped 90 degrees, the table becomes, through the alchemy of theatre, a kind of chariot. This transformation, the first of many, establishes the play’s overarching concern, the glue that binds the disparate moments into a whole: How to make something enduring—an artwork, an identity, a life—from the bits and patches the world hands us. “Some days I just weep and weep,” Joseph exclaims. “Is everything I do just written on water?” Then a hint of a smile: “But what else can I do?”
Cooper is magnificent in the role, his lucid eyes revealing every glimmer of hope and heartache. At times he seems a child, at times a sage, and always an artist driven by unquenchable curiosity. Joseph’s greatest achievement in the play, and the zenith of de Mahy’s vision, may be when he choreographs the clockwork exchange of trinkets—a toy bicycle, an ornament, a bell—amongst his acquaintances; where minutes earlier he had been an outsider—“ever a voyeur,” in one stage direction—now he leads from within.
It sounds incredibly trivial, I know; the only guidance Mee provides is “an entire back wall of the theatre / with bottles with things in them / or the entire fabulous window of a pharmacy / or the fantastical window of a Paris shop / or a thousand sorts of watch springs.” Yet in the context of the production it is glorious, and allows Joseph to conclude, with total conviction, “do what you love / and let the rest follow along behind it.” As the pharmacist sketches a molecule on the floor and the astronomer traces a constellation, Joseph’s brother suddenly dies, and de Mahy finds a new zenith in scattered scraps of paper, and another still in the most erotic dance atop a bathtub you will ever witness.