Rare is the modern play that transforms an audience of adults into children, eyes wondrous and wide at the magic of theater. “Hotel Cassiopeia,” the fifth debut at Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival, does just that. Written by Charles L. Mee and created and performed by the SITI Company, this foray into the fantastical realm of an artist’s imagination produces a triumphant work that twinkles with magic.
Often, a play is designed to impart some moral, to reveal a greater truth through the workings of another’s life. Modern plays tend to do so by showcasing how — regardless of era or customs — we’re all motivated by the same basic desires. “Hotel Cassiopeia” turns that notion on its head by shining light onto a man who lived in decided contrast to the life/love/happiness pursuits of a typical person.
Collage artist Joseph Conrad made wooden boxes filled with mundane objects of the everyday — pocket watches, seashells, broken glass, children’s alphabet blocks. An artist of what he called “metaphysical ephemera,” he made his ordinary findings unique and beautiful. Yet he preferred the inner workings of his imagination to the external world. “I will talk to you about the things I see,” he tells his brother, “the graciousness and wonder” of the chance encounters that fill the day. The various people Conrad simply observes on his trips out of the house to Manhattan mingle and engage in imaginary exchanges on the stage of Conrad’s mind.
The audience is privy to these conversations, and they are, like dreams, alternately entertaining, baffling and even frightening. The actors of SITI Company deserve praise for accomplishing the incredibly difficult feat of being figments of Conrad’s imagination. They are the scenery of Conrad’s mind; he is the puppet master. The actors take their performances just far enough to never cross the line into reality.
O’Hanlon as Conrad gives an endearingly quirky performance. His idiosyncrasies, from rattling off the entire assortment of sweets that comprise his diet, to reciting the lines of his favorite movies along with the film’s actors, are delivered with a child-like innocence.
An ingenious set design by Neil Patel makes “Hotel Cassiopeia” a visual feast. Referencing Conrad’s artwork, the cozy Victor Jory Theatre is transformed into a box itself, its back wall papered with the night sky’s constellations (actually a drawing by Conrad). There’s little fat to the scenery — every object is utilized, from the myriad array in Conrad’s desk to the ladder that runs across the back wall.
Immediately after viewing the play, reservations nagged me. What was the deeper meaning, what metaphors longed to be deciphered, where was Mee hiding the “greater truths”? Surely it couldn’t be as easy as disappearing into the world of an artist for whom the “geometry of memory, thought and feeling” was fulfillment enough. Yet as I mulled it over, I realized it’s exactly that easy. As one character says, “This was the inner life — we miss it.” “Hotel Cassiopeia” offers the all-too-infrequent chance to retreat there.
BY REBECCA HAITHCOAT