John Gasper strikes a tuning fork, and as the sound reverberates through the room, he prompts us to notice our breath. He says we are “little balls of light” and to “picture your soul as a brilliantly radiant globe of white light suspended there in the vast beyond.” Each soul has a light and when they combine, they “become incarnate” and create a new light. “The fetus is now a baby,” he intones. “The baby is now the human. The human is messaging you on Tinder.”
Gasper is one of five actors in Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble’s (ROKE) latest piece, The Art of Luv 5: Swipe Right / ROKÉ Cupid, currently running at the Bushwick Starr. The performance, the latest in a multimedia series exploring contemporary forms of desire, tries to reconnect the soul, the embryo, and identity to the act of detached swiping — a thread from the dating app to the cosmic. Gyrating in tunics and with faces painted gold, performers spout found text from rom-coms and love surveys. In ROKE’s world, all loves are created equal. All loves, whether a stranger on your phone or a Hollywood ideal, stem from the same balls of light.
In an original song, the group members harmonize their longing to be “the figure that you see when you swipe to the right / To be drawn by your dreams to the rest of your life / To get inside your light.” There is a latent intimacy in stroking your thumb across another’s face through your phone’s glass. The song culminates with a Gasper saxophone solo, during which Rigel Harris walks centerstage, pops the top of a Corona, and places it in the sax’s mouth. She adds a comically large bendy straw, from which Tei Blow, Sean McElroy, and Eben Hoffer all drink. Seeking intimacy is equal parts heartbreaking and hilarious.
ROKE considers the range of this seeking, from pleas to demands. Harris reads questions from an online intimacy quiz: “How big is your porn collection:small, medium, large, or ‘I don’t have one?’” McElroy and Hoffer reply, “I don’t have one,” while Tei Blow pauses and admits, “Medium.” The audience laughs, but isn’t each answer charged with social stigma? How many are catering to judgmental partners? Couldn’t someone with a ‘medium’ porn collection also be sweet enough to deliver Billy Crystal’s iconic When Harry Met Sally monologue? In a later segment, Hoffer paces the stage, searching each audience member’s face for a match. As he grills potential lovers about likes and dislikes, delivering question after question about marriage and kids, each ultimatum feels more ridiculous, yanking love’s ethereal mystery back to the logistics of Earth.
The show concludes with Gasper and Harris re-performing climactic scenes from romantic comedies, the scenes in which love is completely and messily professed, often in the rain, or on Lover #1’s ill-fated wedding day with Lover #2 arriving via sprint at the last possible moment. With the projected faces of Andie MacDowell and Hugh Grant, Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling, Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal floating silently on a white silk screen, Gasper and Harris recite their dialogue. They gender-swap who plays Grant and who plays McDowell. They quicken the pace of love, layering these fictional pinnacles, blurring them into one ‘Love Conquers All’ dissonance. “You’re lovely,” Harris repeats, sandwiched inside lines of schlock. By detaching the scenes from their plots, ROKE equates the actors to dating app faces. You might swipe right on actual Ryan Gosling, but what about his gushy character in The Notebook? No longer ideals, star-crossed lovers are reduced to fallible weirdos you might screen-grab and message to a friend accompanied by an “LOL.”
In The Art of Luv 5: Swipe Right / ROKE Cupid, the alienation of online love and sentiment-drenched IRL expectations are equally satirized. As such, ROKE presents a series of tableaus that flatten the forms of desire, exposing the rose’s hilarious thorns while honoring its dark and cosmic allure.
Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble’s The Art of Luv 5: Swipe Right / ROKÉ Cupid continues at the Bushwick Starr (207 Starr St, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through June 10.