‘Hotel Cassiopeia’ at Single Carrot Theatre by Amanda Gunther

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The dark creative eccentricity of shadowbox artist Joseph Cornell comes to life through Hotel Cassiopeia at Single Carrot Theatre. A play written by Charles Mee, infused with exploratory movements derived from the minds of Director Genevieve de May and the actors from the performance lets audiences step into the world of this man who desperately yearned to stop time. Expressing himself through all of his observations Cornell lived a life in solitude, connected deeply to his home life – his brother who was confined to a bed because of cerebral palsy – and his mother who doted on him in an overbearing way. This expressive work shows the audience glimpses of all these well-described observations while giving us a sense of who this mysterious man truly was.

Joseph Cornell (Nathan A. Cooper) (foreground), Herbalist (Nathan Fulton), Astronomer (Paul Diem), and Pharmacist (Rich Espey) (background). Photo by Chris Hartlove.

Set Designer Lisi Stoessel truly captures the raw essence of this artist in her construction of the four main shadowboxes – each distinctive from the other, capturing the reclusive yet beautiful interior of Cornell’s world. The most prominent box is the one that encapsulates Cornell’s brother, Robert. A larger than life wardrobe frame holds a large black and white printed image of a young man asleep in a bed and all around the bed are dying sticks fallen from trees with hints of butterflies strewn throughout; the perfect combination of life hovering so close to death. Cornell spends many scenes with pleading monologues in front of this box, almost making the image a real person.

Each of the other characters in the play are like painted statues plucked from this works of art; each costume defining their character beyond a doubt. Costumer Heather C. Jackson finds the epitome of these characters in her designs. Jackson paints up a picturesque ballerina with a simple tulle tutu in that pure cream color that highlights the character with a childlike innocence. The Astronomer (Paul Diem) dons a vest printed with the night sky’s star charts. There a fervent use of blue throughout these costumes, recurring with the mother, Lauren Bacall, and the other female characters, often capturing the descriptions of the things he has seen.

(l to r) Ballerina (Katie Rumbaugh), Joseph Cornell (Nathan A. Cooper), and Mother (Gina Braden). Photo by Chris Hartlove.

From the moment Joseph Cornell (Nathan A. Cooper) sets foot on the stage the madness is already apparent. Perhaps it isn’t the madness of a murderer or truly insane man, but there is a level of crazy bubbling just beneath the surface, seen clearly in his eyes. Cooper masters this role of precariously balanced sanity, using his vivacious words to express all that the character sees. There are lovely moments of lists; things he brings to his brother, what he sees through a window, the ridiculous amount of desserts he will eat in one setting – these descriptions become so vibrant and realistic that you can practically taste the chocolate cake, or see the woman in blue as he speaks. Cooper’s one flaw is that during these scenes where he addresses the character’s excitement over such observations his voice takes on a pace that is difficult to keep up with. It often builds faster and faster to the point where some of these wonders are lost in the gurgle of words that spews from his mouth like a river racing over the cliff of a mountain. Cooper remains detached from the other characters in the show, all but one – Leila (Alix Fenhagen) and manages to share a truly awkward but tender moment with Fenhagen during their bathtub dance. This piece of silent movement will have you gaping as they incorporate balance and finesse using all portions of the bathtub to reflect their budding relationship.

Ballerina (Katie Rumbaugh) and Joseph Cornell (Nathan A. Cooper). Photo by Chris Hartlove.

The character that is perhaps painted most clearly is the Ballerina (Katie Rumbaugh). She looks as if she’s been plucked out of an old jewelry box, the kind with the spring and little spinning doll inside. Her movements are stilted at first, as if she is little more than a toy waiting to be wound by a key. Rumbaugh has fluid movements as a dancer, beautiful elongated gestures with her arms and legs, yet they feel so hollow, her character filled with unrequited love and attention. She is bursting with passion when finally throws herself to Cooper, her whole body screaming out everything that she has been struggling to hold in and then it fizzles away like a firework that had burned brightly for a single moment and all that remained were the ashes.

The hardest thing about this piece is the disconnected interpretive scenes that often occur with music and no speaking. Many of them seem to fit the piece as quick snippets or flashes of what Cornell was seeing, perhaps even pieces of his life. There is one in particular that stands out as truly effective – the moment when we first feel his urgency of time speeding by, passing him by. There is a cacophony of clocks, bell chimes, alarms, and Coo-Coo clocks that fill the space, almost making music and a clear indication that time is peeling rapidly by occurs. There are, however, other exploratory pieces that simply don’t make sense, and are left up to audience interpretation – such as the human mouse-trap type contraption that is used to transport the bright red ball from one end of the stage to the other and back.

There is even an infusion of projections brought into the show – old Lauren Bacall movies from which Cornell quotes often. And then there is a tender scene between this idol and Cornell where he takes an interview with her. Gina Braden takes on this role and masters that swanky sound of Bacall giving a winning speech about how she’s not really beautiful but beautiful nonetheless. You can hear that confident self-doubt that Bacall was known for in her interviews come through in Braden’s performance, really bringing the long retired actress to life with pep in her step and a little blue dress. So take a journey through the shadowboxes into the mind of Joseph Cornell at Hotel Cassiopeia.

Running Time: 100 minutes, with no intermission.

Hotel Cassiopeia plays through April 29, 2012 at Single Carrot Theatre – 120 W. North Avenue, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets please call (443) 844-9253 or purchase them online.