November 17, 2006

Hotel Cassiopeia baffles with hollow symbolism

Court Theater’s Hotel Cassiopeia opens with a man sitting at a plain wooden desk, his back to the audience, left heel raised, fingers on his temple. Director Anne Bogart liked this image so much, in fact, that she put the actor on stage as the audience entered the theater. When the actor returns to the same position about halfway through the play and then again toward the end, I couldn’t help but wonder if anything had actually happened.

Playwright Charles Mee wrote Hotel Cassiopeia as the second in a quartet of pieces that examine American artists. He looks at Joseph Cornell, the 20th century Queens native and creator of his signature boxes—glass cases displaying motley collections of dolls, buttons, feathers, picture cut-outs, or any other knickknack that Cornell found. But transferring Cornell’s work and life to the stage doesn’t really work in Mee’s play. It’s a bold idea, but in practice, Hotel Cassiopeia is a disorganized collage of images that sacrifices plot, character development, and any other required ingredients for a successful play.

And that’s not to say that Mee would object to this description. In a post-performance discussion on preview night, Mee acknowledged that he did not attempt to accurately depict Cornell’s life; he simply wanted to capture the idea of the man. Some of the events didn’t actually occur, and Mee wasn’t sure which poems and letters were Cornell’s and which were his own. OK, fine—let’s grant him creative license, but Mee should have at least been fair and honest to Cornell.

When I was talking about the play later, a friend groaned and asked if it was like Tom Stoppard’s work. (He’s not a big Stoppard fan.) Nope, not like Stoppard. At least Stoppard, irritating as he might be, creates layers of allusions and symbols that are actually meaningful. In Hotel Cassiopeia, the turns of phrase and odd images seem random. Not knowing much about Cornell, I assumed that he was a crazy man—talented, certainly, but still crazy. In fact, it doesn’t seem like this was the case. That’s just the impression that you receive from Mee’s discombobulated string of images.

I wish for Mee’s sake that Cornell had been insane. Then at least you could praise Mee for traveling inside the mind of a crazy man in a convincing way. Barney O’Hanlon gives a powerful performance as a timid, awkward Cornell who is at once delighted by the world around him and afraid of it.

But Mee allows for little development of the character outside of this rigid structure. Presumably, Cornell had relationships and concerns outside of his artwork, but Mee spends little time on them, except for glimpses of Mee’s cerebral palsy–afflicted brother (J. Ed Araiza) and his frigid mother (Akiko Aizawa). But those are only glimpses, and they left me craving more. The few briefly romantic scenes become meaningless in this climate because we aren’t given any context.

At several points in the play, a girl bikes across the stage. Once, she actually stops and has a conversation with Joseph, but in the other cases, she just bikes, rings her bell, and then disappears. While I watched, I jotted down notes and racked my mind, trying to figure out what this could symbolize. Another time, a ballerina gives her fairy wings to a nameless, hefty bourgeois gentleman (Leon Ingulsrud). It’s a ridiculous, comical image. What could this statement mean? What is Mee really saying? Nothing!

That’s what’s so frustrating about Hotel Cassiopeia. Mee and Bogart have made creative and often beautiful images on the stage, but when they’re combined with only traces of character development and a few shreds of plot throughout the work, the effect just comes across as vapid.