I stand in utter confusion as to how to generate an opinion on the work entitled Calypso, by writer Paul Rome and performer/composer Roarke Menzies, put on last night at the Bushwick Starr Theatre. I can truly think of two narratives in response to his work.
First, the facts. The play, in two acts, consisted of two voices. The first, read by Menzies, is a forlorn lost lover, trying to make sense of his lost love, experiencing NYC while it kills him. The other voice consists of a sort of omniscient narrator who retells the story of the Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope — though this time as a sexually frustrated, angry wife of a selfish husband. In the second act the narrator speaks from the perspective of Aeneas, a boy turned man who learns to questions his accepted fate. Both of these modern retellings are spoken in a winking, heavily allusive, satirical contemporary voice that takes jabs at the pretensions of these older cultures and pinpoints some of the absurdities of epics. The play switches between the monologue of the modern sad sack and the omniscient narrator all set to the music of the talented Menzies. But then comes the important question. How can I appraise this attempt?
One part of me applauds this effort. It sparkled with intelligence, clever writing, sharp satire and an often hilarious send-up of the classics of our canon, the Odyssey and Aeneid. True, Rome picked some low hanging fruit in including allusions to the present day Dido, but beside that, his monologues glistened with sophistication and wit. In contrast to the more satirical voice of the omniscient narrator, the sad sack, Menzies, spoke with a refreshing earnestness about his innermost desires, pains and loves. He relays the story of his first real love, Megan, who strikes him at first as the perfect woman because they just fit in some sort of intuited cosmic sense. Just like in the story he reads by Murakami, an author they both, auspiciously, love. However, as its wont, trouble stirs in lover’s paradise as Megan grows distant when Menzies’s character’s father dies of cancer, and it emerges, painfully, that Megan lost an earlier lover. Consequently, this leads the performer to believe he only ever stood as a stand in for Megan’s true love, an astute piece of self-awareness that is obvious in hindsight.
His pain becomes our pain, his ambiguities, ours. We connect to this tried and true story of the shattering of our idealization of Romantic love. The retelling of the Odyssey from the rightfully frustrated voice of Penelope, as well as the struggle of Aeneas between his love for Dido and his sense of destiny only heightens the eternity of these questions: What is teh value of love, is love really all you can need, to whom must we first be loyal ourselves or our beloveds, and can we truly know someone?
Still, another part of me sees this all as the clickety-clack of that outdated post-modern machine churning out pellets of no importance or significance, pellets that represent even but a pale mimicry of the post-modern greats. The sad sack’s story not only fails to transcend his pathetic narcissism: it feels so masturbatory, so self important and involved to the point of feeling staid, and ultimately, the kiss of death, boring. I want to tell him to stop whining. To just stop, please, stop. Love stories compel us when they can use the shockingly personal to illuminate the blatantly universal. But here, I just want to say to him, “Enough we all fall in and out of love. See it from the perspective of the universe. If not that, then see it from the perspective of someone else.” The world is on fire, not with the fire of God, or beauty, of humanity or of love, but with the fire of death, disease, daily, of an American economic situation that robs families of their houses, their lives, of an increasing societal split that threatens the very fiber of our country, and you whine about your love, or lack thereof, or feeling lost amongst party after party, after numerous drug sessions?
But what kind of criticism is that? We all know that first world problems, or what some refer to as problems of luxury, lack perspective when compared to more exigent problems of starvation, poverty, death etc, but does that make those problems any less urgent, or beautiful or poignant? Does a breakup still not feel like a death because children die every sixty seconds of malaria in Africa? In terms of artistic endeavors, I know many of the theories that belie this supposition, I know that some will say that the true mark of a free society is artistic freedom. Art not enslaved to morality or politics signifies true freedom of expression. But I find these explanations increasingly self-serving, evasive, and disconnected from the needs of our society. Something in me makes me think that we need less of an continual and consistent exploration of the bottomless pit of our selves, and more Art than engages the urgent questions of our time. But then, I do love workaholics, and what value does that contribute to the world?
I really do not know anymore. Maybe I missed the “point” of this performance. Maybe I engorged, this past weekend, on too many books about OWS and the current economic crisis to feel enough of a distance to hear this story. But maybe that what pieces like this ultimately gives the viewer. It challenges us to ask these questions about the value of art, of if we can even speak about value in a discussion of art. These pieces force us, whether through the intention of its creator or not, to confront the ultimate question of purpose, a question we might find blasé, but still an urgent question in our day and age.