Last Thursday with its inch of rain was not an evening for casual outings, but three factors drew us out to hear the "audio play" Calypso at STOREFRONT. Number one was the duo behind it, author Paul Rome (who we haven’t heard from since last year’s radio play …And Once Again packed out the Bushwick Starr), backed up this time around by electronic musician Roarke Menzies. Next was the venue: we were curious how our second-narrowest gallery could possibly work as a performance space. And third was the event page’s teasing lack of details, which didn’t even settle which usage of the name Calypso we would be dealing with.
Calypso has two meanings with no common etymology: the island nymph in the Odyssey who detained Odysseus as her husband for seven years, and the steelpan-driven musical tradition of Trinidad and Tobago. As it played out, Rome used both meanings as a weak tie between two alternating stories, not so much a common thread as a sort of hyperlink, as though the stories were two Wikipedia pages just one disambiguation apart. One told a story of young love between two deliciously stereotyped students in Morningside Heights, while the other told the tale of the Odyssey from the viewpoint of the long suffering wife Penelope.
Each tale by itself would be a good one in any format and any pairing, with Rome’s easy humor and detail oriented storytelling. As with last year’s radio play, it’s the presentation that made a real evening of it, even if this one only lasted 40 minutes. The paired stories with Menzies’s custom musical carrier signal were sounded out at last month’s Bushwick Home Companion, a series at the Northeast Kingdom Den to which we ought to be paying some attention. From there the creators were stumped by the "weird length" of their creation, and decided that the pocket-sized work needed a proportionally scaled down venue. Thus STOREFRONT, the sparse event flier, and the single Thursday staging.
The audience, however, had other ideas. STOREFRONT was packed to the rainy threshold and glowed with laughter, undiminished in its enthusiasm from last year’s Bushwick Starr feature. The stories were of love misplaced and misunderstood, of relationships betrayed by distant islands – Trinidad, Ogygia – and their resident doppelgängers. What so engaged the audience, however, were the simpler delights of spot-on characters, with Menzies delivering the uncomfortably believable confessions of a Columbia student (riding a tandem down to Chinatown for banh mi and bubble tea) and Rome playing Penelope as a frustrated contemporary, a Marge to Odysseus’s Homer.
Rome admits that along with the weird length, it’s the less-than-sexy idea of the "reading" that makes it hard to go places with his brand of performance. He’s gaining ground in this, though, and has at least convinced Bushwick that spoken literature can be more than just an excuse for authors to get out more. Working with atmospheric, mood-coloring music like Menzies’s plays a role in this, creating a fictional space that holds auditory focus. The rest of the work is done by the writing itself, which is simply storytelling in a good oral tradition. "Homeric" is too grandiose a comparison, but let’s call it a hyperlink.