Lost Loves, Past and Present: “Calypso” at The Bushwick Starr

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1. Roarke Menzies, performer and composer, reading about love and bike rides.

Calypso, staged at The Bushwick Starr on July 13 and 14, is not a typical literary reading. And despite its minimalist set, which includes an old wooden chair and end table, an older speaker system, and bottle of Johnnie Walker Black, it isn’t exactly a play, either. Instead, this two-act, two man show is an intriguing blend of theatre, reading, music, and literary interpretation that addresses the intersection of the contemporary and the classical as it closes the divide between text and performance.

Calypso is a work by Brooklyn-based artists and regular collaborators Paul Rome and Roarke Menzies. Rome, who wrote the words, reads two interpretations of classical stories, titled “Penelope” and “Aeneas.” Menzies, who contributed the performance’s delicate and supple music, reads a diary-style piece about modern lovers called “Tandem.”

Rome’s reading of “Penelope” refreshes the familiar story of Odysseus by telling it from the perspective of his abandoned wife who, like the rest of Rome’s classical figures, is imbued with the motivations and limitations of modern mortals. Penelope becomes depressed and lonely in her husband’s absence, makes a dent in his ample wine cellar, attributes his heroism to vanity, and attempts to seduce her maid. Rome’s leveling of literature’s immortals fills them with humanity and humor. When Penelope is on the verge of sleeping with one of her suitors, her son and maid remind her that her fate is to be a symbol of chastity. Penelope retorts, “Don’t give me that fate shit. I’m thirty-eight years old and I haven’t had sex since I was a teenager.” Yet this bit of irreverence gives way to Penelope’s acceptance of her fate, which is to wait for Odysseus’s return and to again witness his exile.

“Aeneas,” a modernized re-telling of Virgil’s Aeneid is Rome’s second reading. Menzies’ light, ethereal music complements Rome’s description of Aeneas immortalized among the Olympians. Yet the hero grows restless in paradise and, tired of the parties, raves, and orgies (this is a contemporary Olympus), he regretfully tells his lover Dido that he has to leave to found Rome. Dido, like Penelope, is left behind.

1. The set, complete with Johnnie Walker Black, waiting for its performers.

The tales of Penelope and Aeneas unfold alongside a story about love in present day New York City. Menzies deftly performs the role of a name-dropping Columbia student and cycling enthusiast who reads about his relationship with a girl named Megan, who (surprisingly to the narrator but not to the audience) shares his fondness for biking, Haruki Murakami, and Calypso music. The gratuitous references to indie bands, Manhattan undergrad cuisine (báhn mì sandwiches and bubble tea), and East Village dive bars might seem superficial, but the character picks up on when he finds out, to his horror, that Megan is leading him through the landmarks of her last relationship. Yet when they break up, the narrator finds himself taking Megan’s replacements through the same routines. Beneath the NYC Madlib of “Tandem” is a disturbing truth about how we try to recapture the memories of lost loves.

The overlap between the two stories is found in the performance’s title. Calypso refers to both the music of Trinidad and Tobago, which becomes an integral part of the narrator’s relationship, and the goddess who detains Odysseus for years as he tries to return to Ithaca. The term, which unites the present with the past, expresses the universality of love and loss.

This link is represented throughout the performance in Menzies’ music, which drones longingly behind the readers. The accompaniment is dynamic and enticing, ranging from a low murmur to a lively, island rhythm-inspired pulse. Menzies’ music complements Rome’s narrative to create an engrossing auditory experience.

Calypso debuted at The Bushwick Starr in May and returned last weekend for a second showing.

***

— Sam Gold is played by Jesse Eisenberg here.

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