You’d be hard-pressed to come up with an artist less likely to inspire a play than Joseph Cornell (1903-’72), who lived his life in boxes. Working at a series of mind-numbing clerical jobs, he spent most of his life with his aging mother and disabled brother in the same small house in Queens. He never dated, never married, never even had lovers until his mid-60s, when he lost his virginity to a young art student.

Like any good introvert, Cornell had a rich inner life. His mind was always humming with images and ideas. He was inspired by the ephemera of daily life–faded photos, yellowing books, broken dolls, cast-off toys, forgotten keys, old magazines–the raw material for his sublime, category-defying art.

For decades Cornell toiled at his kitchen table assembling boxes of mysterious, dreamlike scenes: a naked plastic doll with cheesy blond hair standing on a piece of moss surrounded by a cave of menacing bark, a newsprint parrot sitting on a real wooden perch surrounded by columns of newsprint.

But these enigmatic boxes don’t appear to lend themselves to theatrical adaptation any more than Cornell’s nearly eventless life. Which may be why Neo-Futurists Connor Kalista and Greg Allen were drawn to him. They don’t do neat, linear adaptations–their last collaboration, Crime and Punishment, was inspired by Dostoyevsky’s novel but was in no way a literal translation. “I didn’t even finish the novel until the weekend the show closed,” Allen says, laughing. Instead they used every room and nook in the Neo-Futurarium to create a complicated interactive show in which every member of the audience was both observer and part of the performance.

“I said I would be interested in working with a graphic artist next time around,” says Allen. “For a while we were kicking around the idea of doing the complete works of Vermeer. Then we each made up a list of artists that we would like to adapt.”

Edward Hopper came up as a possible subject, but Joseph Cornell showed up on both their lists. Kalista, who works as a secretary in the 20th-century department of the Art Institute, had access to Cornell boxes that aren’t on display–the museum has one of the largest collections in the world. “He got to play with the boxes,” Allen says, enviously. “He’s got one of Cornell’s postcards on his desk.”

Kalista also dug into Cornell’s papers, which are archived at the institute. “Cornell never kept a diary,” he says. “His diary was scattered throughout the house on scraps of paper, on napkins–cryptic notes to himself kept in roughly chronological order so he could later date them.”

Allen confined himself to reading Deborah Solomon’s biography of Cornell, Utopia Parkway, and Lindsay Blair’s collection of critical essays, Joseph Cornell’s Vision of Spiritual Order.

Their plan was to create a series of mostly unrelated sketches inspired by Cornell’s life and work, but they soon abandoned that in favor of an approach that they hope more closely approximates Cornell’s creative process. “I have always wanted to make Cornell boxes,” Allen says. “I have been collecting stuff for years and never got around to doing them. I wanted to see if we could appropriate his working methods and his way of viewing art and see if we could use the same methods to create theater.”

Boxing Joseph Cornell plays at the Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM; tickets are $10. Call 773-275-5255. –Jack Helbig

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lindy and Edwin Bergman Joseph Cornell Collection–Art Institute of Chicago.