Did Shakespeare’s character Hamlet say, “To be or not to be, that is the question”? Or: “To be or not to be, that is the choice”? Or: “To be and not to be, all is the king”?
In “A Piece of Work,” the curious new experimental theater piece having its world premiere this weekend at On the Boards, Hamlet may say some or none of those things — and a lot of other variations on the theme.
Portraying the inky-cloaked Dane, New York actor Scott Shepherd receives different verbiage at each performance from a computer, via an earpiece. From night to night, he doesn’t know exactly what Hamlet will be saying — and neither does the audience.
That is because director Annie Dorsen and her tech-savvy compatriots have purposefully hijacked the text of “Hamlet,” computerized it, and then created a set of nightly variable algorithms (programmatic commands) that reshuffle the words, lines, stage directions and scenes of “Hamlet” into a new configuration each night.
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For half the 90-minute piece, the very adroit Shepherd sits in a chair and doesn’t just recite his impromptu lines but, whenever possible, invests them with meaning and a kind of wonder that makes for an interesting immediacy.
If you know the play, and it sure helps if you do, “A Piece of Work” (previously titled “False Peach”) forces you to listen with fresh ears to rearrangements of soliloquies you may have heard or read multiple times, and periodically glean new meaning from them.
Given the John Cage-esque random collaging of the text, Shepherd at times speaks garbled nonsense and sounds like a stroke patient with aphasia. But the revised lines can sporadically be startlingly, fleetingly poetic and revealing as well, if you listen carefully.
The effect, at its strongest, is of a man struggling to find the words for events, emotions, thoughts that are overwhelming him — the essence, arguably, of Hamlet’s situation. The conceit also forces an actor to give an entirely in-the-moment portrayal of an iconic character, which Shepherd is clearly capable of. (He’s already played the Danish prince in another, quite different techno-version of “Hamlet,” staged by The Wooster Group.)
“A Piece of Work” also bombards you with the sheer richness and vibrancy of Shakespeare’s language. How many other playwrights use such a variegated abundance of resonant language, and would be as well-served by this exercise? It’s hard to think of one.
Dorsen also sparely introduces a few other theatrical elements into the coding — lighting cues, blackouts that force breaks and endings in the text. After Shepherd’s segment (abruptly) ends, the show’s second half continues to scramble the play and reorder it by such means as summoning only lines that start with the word “O” (“O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!”), or only three-letter words.
But these are projected in different typefaces (also random, one assumes) on a large screen, and in some instances they’re simultaneously spoken by computerized voices.
Some of the voices sound annoyingly machine-generated, like voiced vending machines do. Others are more lifelike, including the rumbling, eerie tone of the ghost of Hamlet’s father. (He’s also represented by a plume of smoke arising from the center of an odd raised wooden platform in front of the screen.)
The technique eerily muddies the border between human and technically fabricated speech. But when the human element disappears and the computer takes over entirely, “A Piece of Work” can get especially dry and off-putting — a conceptual game you’ve comprehended and are tiring of.
If you are a Shakespeare traditionalist, this isn’t for you: Dorsen’s conception may well infuriate you. And while the technology is current, the premise isn’t — the avant-garde composer Cage was reassembling bits of operas into sound collages decades ago.
Yet if one steps back and considers “A Piece of Work” as a kind of dialogue between the intelligence that produces great poetical theater, and so-called “artificial intelligence,” an ambivalent response is probably inevitable, perhaps desirable — given our nagging ambivalence about the increasingly dominant role computers play in our society and culture.
In this sense, “A Piece of Work” is a fascinating exercise, which, paradoxically enough, leads one back to a greater appreciation of Shakespeare.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org