Playwright: Mike Brayndick. At: On the Spot Theatre Company at The Greenhouse, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: 1-773-404-7336; www.greenhousetheater.org; $20. Runs through: Aug. 18
Self-taught American outsider artist Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) is most famous for his "assemblages, three-dimensional collages of found objects and photos commenting on U.S. culture and history. I've seen two plays about him, each utilizing a highly-fragmented narrative and aggressively kaleidoscopic staging somehow reflective of the flotsam and jetsam Cornell collected and turned into art. Enough! Just tell me the story of his life, please, in a comprehensible way.
In two hours (plus intermission), How to Make a Rainbow does convey considerable biographical information about Cornell, but it's a jigsaw puzzle viewers must put together, especially in Act I, with virtually no trail markers as to when things occurred or what was real. Did he actually meet Salvador Dali and Marcel Duchamp? How did Cornell become obsessed with 19th Century ballerina Marie Taglioni? Or high-wire walker Blondin? Or Emily Dickinson? These figures (and various princesses imprisoned in towers) dominate Cornell's rich fantasy life in this play, but to what end? How they influenced his art remains unrevealed. Indeed, the play hardly touches on his art at all. He never works on his art or displays a finished object, nor does the play include the arc of his eventually successful career.
What it does do is contrast Cornell's fantasy life and his claustrophobic domestic life. Cornell was 14 when his father died and money disappeared. By late adolescence he was caretaker for his mother and siblings, especially his brother, Robert, who had Cerebral Palsy. They moved to a modest house in Queens, N.Y., and there Cornell lived and died. He was pathologically shy, which limited his romantic life although he did have a liaison in the 1960s with a much younger woman who stole some of his work. The play devotes much of Act II to this affair without making it sexually explicit or explaining how it affected his work.
So, just like viewing gallery art, you're on your own to figure out this highly impressionistic collection of bits, pieces, snippets and conjectures about a life and fantasy life. But this kaleidoscope doesn't explain or introduce Cornell's art, so you end up saying "so what?" A little theatrical assemblage goes a long way and Rainbow goes as far as an endless death scene. It offers two Cornells, real and alter ego, to explain thingsbut it doesn't help much.
Author and director Mike Brayndick espouses a multidisciplinary approach and involves his ensemble in script development and improvisation, and Rainbow is highly creative. Still, I've written time and again that playwright and director are full-time jobs and one shouldn't be both at the same time. Brayndick is far too close to his work and process to understand how Rainbow leaves its audience behind.