Cabinet of Curiosity is a once fashionable idea of collecting a curated assemblage of objects into a room (then, later, a custom made actual cabinet) done by people of means to impress and inspire.
It was something of a precursor to museums. The artifacts were imbued with meaning and value for the collector, both each individual object on its own, and as a collection. The objects acquired meaning in relationship with and juxtaposition to the other items on display.
Chicago impresario Frank Maugeri aims to bring that concept into the 21st century as an answer to the question: What can theatre BE in the age of the internet? He is assembling objects and experiences as a kind of contemporary Theatre as Cabinet universe, and opening his collection for us to interact with and reflect upon.
His new not-for-profit ensemble, Cabinet of Curiosity Events (COCE), rises like a phoenix from the death of Chicago’s iconic spectacle creator Redmoon Theatre, where he was a thought leader for years. Maugeri has alchemically collected some of his colleagues from that storied time (like co-conspirator Seth Bockley) and hand picked some new collaborators (like the angel voiced bard Liz Chidester), pulling together a diverse band of performer/co-creators in a rehearsal room to devise live experiences that are rituals of gathering. As evidenced from COCE’s current production, Tabletop Tragedies, a tryptic of tales which sold out the recent Chicago International Puppet Theatre Festival and is now revived to excellent effect at the Chopin Theatre for one more week, Maugeri is still a master at shepherding visually arresting narratives into being. He is now asking deep questions about human existence. He has most excellent help: alongside Chidester onstage, performers Time Brickey, Mike Steele, Nicole Laurenzi, Bran Moorehead and Allyce Torres are the kind of multitalented, wildly creative, fascinating to watch and brave playmates this endeavor requires. This ensemble deserves much credit for bringing together aliveness, layers upon layers of metaphor, humanity and stories with roots in our favorite mythologies in a compelling evening of entertainment.
With no disrespect to these living artists, Maugeri’s particular gift, and the strength of COCE, seems to be something oft overlooked in theatre: the objects. Most of us blow right by the props but here, like sacramental objects, the masks, puppets, rolling scenes, screens, candles, shadows and fabric swatches are able to convey meaning, evoke emotion and cause spiritual transformation if the audience is so inclined. For example, Billy the Kid’s mother—here a soulful, blinkable mask and an articulated hand repurposed from a Chicago Shakespeare production—becomes the quintessential mother. Like the relic of a saint, this bit of wood and wire becomes a symbol of eternal love and traumatic loss. It is a deeply human impulse to infuse an object with intense significance: your grandmother’s wedding dress, Elijah’s cup, the Chalice on every communion altar, the alleged finger bone of a saint. In a very 21st century antidote to television/movie/computer screens, COCE adds a visceral experience to the collection: there are candles to move through, incense, and a chance to meet and handle the objects and the end of a show. COCE is also custom designing events and rituals utilizing the same concepts of collaboration and resonance.
For this most recent work, COC seems to be primarily occupied with questions of death and resurrection and is surprisingly matter of fact about reincarnation, which might be a given since many of the main characters in the show have, like the actors, been in other shows for other theatre companies. Death and resurrection through reincarnation is the nature of acting: create and give birth to a character, give them a life for the run of the show, kill them off on closing night, and the characters or play is resurrected somewhere else in another venue while the actor is reincarnated in the next show.
The vision for this endeavor/organization/process includes tight rehearsal schedules roughly similar to that used for existing scripts: bringing a show into being in six or so weeks, after Maugeri and Bockley have roughed out a concept and an outline script. COCE is able to create a “birth” process for the work that is inherently improvisational, organically collaborative, which Bockley calls “Beautiful and Mysterious.” Chidester noted that what drew her in to the work was a special kind of freedom to contribute in a way that is uncommon to more traditional rehearsal processes. Everyone I have spoken to notes that it is difficult to attribute authorship to many of the ideas since the concept generation is so egalitarian and flows so quickly.
Ultimately, Maugeri and his band of collaborators hope to create compelling experiences that transform people: those on stage, those witnessing and experiencing, and those made only of stuff. As we move into a world where our objects will supposedly have artificial intelligence, COCE tells us they always have had a kind of mind. It remains to be seen whether this humanistic vision of gathering together to share story will be sustainable in our world of isolated cabinets, and whether we will go out into the world and interact because, as the COCE motto says : “For us the world is Cabinet of Curiousity.” But, this new theatre ensemble/creative company gives one hope for our future. And the little Devil puppet on stage this week at the Chopin tells us that for all of human history, our creations have always been smart.
For more information on Tabletop Tragedies, the Company, Frank Maugeri, upcoming COCE events or how to book one of your own, go to www.cocechicago.com.