All photos by Chris Hartlove

Hotel Cassiopeia is written by playwright Charles Mee

Over the last month or so, as we’ve been settling into the What Weekly World Headquarters, I have had the opportunity to share a handful of moments, conversations, and cups of coffee with the friendly folks of Single Carrot Theatre, who also find their home at Load of Fun. Upon discovering that they were about to premiere a show based on the life of Joseph Cornell, I knew that my opportunity had finally arrived to find out just what’s going on in the intimate theater space just below us.

Nathan Fulton, Paul Diem, Rich Espey, Nathan A. Cooper (L to R)

Single Carrot’s own story is one that should warm the hearts of any die-hard Baltimorians. Formed at the University of Colorado in 2005, Single Carrot Theatre is “nine young artists working to make the community a better place through art.” After graduating, they knew it was time to settle on a new locale, and after an extensive nationwide search, Baltimore was chosen to be their home.

Why would a group of theater-makers from Colorado leave the beautiful mountains of Boulder and transplant themselves into the rough and rugged streets of Baltimore?

It seems as though the criteria for relocating was actually rather straightforward, though it was much easier to develop the list than it was to find the city. They were looking for a place with strong arts funding, a welcoming arts community, a big city with a small city feel, and a low cost of living, in a theater market that was not overly saturated with small to mid-sized theater companies. After considering many other options, Baltimore was the winner, and the group slowly migrated east over the next three years.

By 2007, Single Carrot Theatre was in full swing, and has since produced 5 seasons of original productions, mounting a total of 21 previous shows. For Hotel Cassiopeia, Single Carrot Theater’s 22nd production, they turn their attention to the strange, complex and eccentric life and mind of Joseph Cornell.

Katie Rumbaugh, Nathan A. Cooper

Cornell was an American Artist who produced meticulously constructed  assemblages out of materials he collected from wherever he could. Carefully placing and arranging his unusual knick-knacks inside of small boxes, his creations are strange, fanciful, and full of magic. As it turns out, though his work is well-balanced and evokes tranquility, both his internal and external life was tumultuous, chaotic and often quite challenging.

To tackle full spectrum of Cornell’s complexity was first the task of Obie Award winner and celebrated playwright Charles Mee, whose script was brought to life through the eyes of Single Carrot, under the direction of Ensemble Member Genevieve de Mahy. Cornell himself is played by Single Carrot’s Artistic Director, Nathan Cooper, who captures the subtlety and nuances of this eccentric recluse and artistic genius.

As the story shifts between Cornell’s internal and external worlds, the play itself moves between the realms, at times offering forth more linear plot, and at other times moving into surreal scenes filled with irrational logic and organized imagination. When all combined, we experience the complexity of a whole life, as it plays out over 90 minutes of non-traditional theater.

The show is complex, poetic, overwhelming, and inspiring.  It raises many more questions than it answers, and leaves the viewer wondering what just happened. In this way, it is successful in portraying the overall feeling and essence of Cornell’s total being. For those expecting a tranquil romp through the life of a romanticized artist, come prepared to be challenged by this engrossing production.

The set design was coordinated by Lisi Stoessel, a friend and colleague who I know from my time in Washington, DC. Her set really hits the mark, and offers a tactile feast for the senses, which patrons are encouraged to touch and explore upon their arrival. While the sights and sounds of Cornell’s life fill the intimate space, you slowly realize that you have not only entered a cluttered room, but a cluttered mind, and a strange one at that.

Katie Rumbaugh, Nathan A. Cooper, Gina Braden (L to R)

Single Carrot’s use of materials throughout the play is to be commended. Of particular note is a tragic scene which utilizes only paper to explore multiple layers of death and resurrection, evoking the fragility of life, and the fleetingness of memory. Fabric is also used throughout many of the dream sequences, which takes on a life of its own, contributing to the overall feeling of fluid motion within the imaginative scenes.

The exploration of Cornell’s personal life moves between his family, his associations with many well known artists of the time, and his romantic struggles with women. It is clear within all of the scenarios presented that he lived in a constant difficulty surrounding his relationships, whose turmoil makes its way into his private, internal chaos.

I must admit it has been difficult to write a review of this show. In the spirit of full disclosure, it has taken me two weeks to do so. I consider this to be a sign of success from the production, offering forth many complex layers that have been difficult to dissect. I hope that this fact alone is enough to make you want to experience this provocative work, which is anything but straightforward.

When I lived in Chicago, I would often visit the Art Institute, which houses an impressive display of Cornell’s boxes. It was with great curiosity that I choose to enter further into his world with the guidance of Single Carrot Theatre. For those interested in art, madness, dreams, and reality, I recommend checking out Hotel Cassiopeia, which runs through April 29th.

Come with an open mind, an open heart, and a willingness to go along for the ride, and you will surely not be disappointed.

Production Manager Nathan Fulton and Artistic Director Nathan Cooper have published a series of Blog Posts on the Single Carrot Website that will allow you further glimpse into the artist, his life, and the play he has now inspired.

Getting to Know Joseph Cornell – the Man Behind the Play

Assemblage and the Art of Digging

Constellations: A guide to the set of Hotel Cassiopeia

Click here to visit Single Carrot Theatre’s website

Click here to purchase tickets to Hotel Cassiopeia