Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Review: Gay & Lesbian Times

Hotel Cassiopeia
Published Thursday, 27-Nov-2008 in issue 1092
Gay & Lesbian Times

An odd assortment of people wander across the stage before the show begins: a ballerina, two men in suits painted à la Jackson Pollock, Lauren Bacall, a waitress, a pogo stick rider, a severe-looking woman pushing a lawn mower, a trio consisting of a pharmacist, an astronomer and an herbalist.

These are all characters – real or imaginary – in artist Joseph Cornell’s life. Playwright Charles Mee’s memory play Hotel Cassiopeia plays through Dec. 7 at San Diego State University’s Don Powell Theatre. Peter James Cirino directs.

Born in 1903, Cornell’s personal life revolved around his overbearing mother (Kimberly Ford) and little brother Robert (Billy Khang), a cerebral palsy victim, with whom he lived until they died. Cornell assumed the responsibility of providing for the family at 14, when his father died. He worked in various places, including a Manhattan textile studio. He never studied art.

After hours, Cornell collected found objects at flea markets and junk shops, which he took home to his collection in the basement. There he used them in unique collage boxes, a technique known as assemblage. His work, influenced by the Surrealists, was admired by many leading artists, and Cornell showed his work at the Guggenheim and Metropolitan museums in New York. He was also an avant-garde filmmaker, making dreamscapes by splicing together existing film stock and changing the lighting. Holiday in Brazil is one example.

taking its cue from Cornell’s eccentric life (and based on his diary), is a multimedia extravaganza that gives SDSU’s technical team a chance to shine in ways not often possible. The set is an enormous wooden construction resembling an oversized piece of furniture of the type one might use to store and display art or pottery. Suspended up right is Robert’s room, itself an elevated box. Videocam projections flash onto the wall with close-ups of the actors. Platforms slide in on what sound like ball bearings, usually carrying a character. A child’s slide appears and is used by cast members. A pianist plays on stage left.

There is no linear plot; Hotel Cassiopeia is a collection of snippets from Cornell’s life. Through all the apparent chaos, Cornell’s near-crippling shyness comes through, a problem which prevented him from connecting with women.

is an extraordinary (if strange) dramatic event, at once fascinating and puzzling. Cornell was definitely a breed apart.

The cast is fine, individually and collectively, but the stars of this show are the technicians who built the constructions and make the stage magic work.

Only four performances remain. If you’re in the mood for adventurous theater, give Hotel Cassiopeia a whirl.

plays through Dec. 7 at SDSU’s Don Powell Theatre. Shows Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; matinee Sunday at 2 p.m. For more information, visit www.gaylesbiantimes.com/links/1092.

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