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Readings are a staple of every literary calendar. The author comes out to promote a book, the audience to support a friend or bask in the presence of a beloved writer. Most have read the book anyway, or are going home with a copy. It’s more obeisance than entertainment.
Author Paul Rome has taken this bit of weeknight ritual and rebuilt it as equal parts performance and literature. To do so, he’s performed a simple trick: Rome writes to read.
His latest mutt of theater, short story and music, Calypso, ran earlier this month at the Bushwick Starr. Rome took the stage with sometimes collaborator Roarke Menzies — who also composed a score — but they didn’t do much with the Starr’s modest space. As at any reading, the microphone was the whole of the stage.
The word “calypso” has two etymologically unrelated meanings, and therein lay Rome’s hook for the work. One is a musical genre rooted on the island of Trinidad; the other is a sea nymph who trapped Odysseus on her island, Ogygia, for seven years in Homer’s Odyssey. Rome draws on both islands for the sake of each other, telling a confessional tale of young love and vinyl in Manhattan (yet another island) and trading that off with an account of the Odyssey in the voice of Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, and then of Virgil’s Aeneid, for good measure.
Without the interactivity of storytelling, or the beat of spoken word, or the retro pomp of radio theater, Calypso consists simply of the laying out of a text in a comfortably furnished sonic space. Menzies’s electronic compositions work to carry extra emotional data and focus the experience for an audience with attention spans more attuned to musical gigs than long tales.
It’s striking how the score, along with Rome’s measured sentences, captivates and immerses the auditory cortex. The effect worked just as well in the duo’s The You Trilogy from last year, a series of short stories recorded to stream online. Hearing Calypso in the theater was less about having the speakers there in front of us and more about the experience of listening together.
Surprisingly, the classical Mediterranean half of the show is the lighter fare, salted with pop references and a female take on the meathead antics of the Greek heroes. It doesn’t quite overlap with the contemporary side of the story, but it isn’t unaware of it, either. The latter is where the real tale is, narrated by a self-absorbed Columbia student who believes in a love as pure and tragic as Dido and Aeneas. Casually obsessed with his city and his place in it, he’s annoying in all the right ways — the character we love to hate to be.
As this character’s minor odyssey takes him from Morningside Heights to the Lower East Side, the work slips into the well-worn cosmology of Manhattan-as-Universe. It’s successfully deployed here because the universe is a very specific, Hellenic one. The finitude of the grid embodies the Greek notion of fate, in which the Messenger God rides a fixed-gear bike and the rooftop is every renter’s personal Olympus.
Calypso is certainly a New York City story, but the references (the bands, the bikes, the bánh mì and bubble tea) are not just insider humor; they constitute a level of ethnographic detail. This sort of color might even play better to outsiders, as the absurd traditions of ancient Greece do.
If there’s an ethnographic truth in the details, maybe it’s this: Forgive us New Yorkers, for we have a way of presenting our lives as DIY tragedy. It’s the only way to live on this barren archipelago, toiling at the feet of Olympus. And the catharsis feels so good.
Calypso ran at the Bushwick Starr from May 9 through May 12.
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