A review of Tiago Rodrigues’ moving “By Heart” — created as a tribute to his grandmother — at On the Boards.
Anyone who has endeavored to memorize a poem, for school or a performance or just for pleasure, can empathize with the 10 people trying to commit a sonnet to memory in the quietly transformative piece “By Heart.”
Each night at On the Boards, in a run that ends Sunday, creator-performer Tiago Rodrigues casually invites audience volunteers to join him onstage. You will not be acting, the disarming head of Lisbon’s Teatro Nacional D. Maria II assures them in his Portuguese-inflected English. “There won’t be any thea-tah involved,” he underscores, with a mock flourish.
Well, yes and no. It is a performance, but of a very intimate sort that requires and rewards a kind of meditative patience as Rodrigues drills his 10-member chorus in a line-by-line memorization of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30. It famously begins, “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought/I summon up remembrance of things past…”
8 p.m. Jan. 14, 5 p.m. Jan. 15, On the Boards, 100 W. Roy St., Seattle; $23-$25 (ontheboards.org)
During these call-and-response drills, the people perched on chairs become familiar to us and we can easily empathize with their struggle to grasp and cling to challenging phrases of metered text. Just imagine having to articulate, exactly and repeatedly, before a room full of strangers, “And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe.” Or “The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan.”
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An often frustrated yet encouraging teacher, the casually clad Rodrigues is a wry, unpretentious fellow, prone to cracking jokes mainly at his own expense. But he’s a relentless choir leader, sometimes uncomfortably so. “We’re going to be here all night,” he threatens, when his “students” have trouble retrieving lines they’ve repeated a dozen times.
There’s much more, though, to “By Heart” than these drill sessions. A passionate lover of books and words, and a thoughtful transmitter of poetry’s power when implanted in our souls and psyches, Rodrigues explores how (in author Jorge Luis Borges’ words) our “memory shapes its own Eden within.”
Dipping into several crates of books at his feet, using them as texts and props, he threads “By Heart” with stories and quotations about the power of words held close, when everything else is stripped away. He speaks of the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, a victim of Stalinist persecution, whose wife saved his work from extinction by teaching by heart each of his poems to 10 people, who would then relate the poem to another 10, and so on.
He quotes from the humanist literary philosopher George Steiner, and recounts the plot of “Fahrenheit 451,” Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel about an authoritarian, post-intellectual society in which books are hunted and burned by roaming bands of government firemen.
Most movingly, Rodrigues weaves in a story of his grandmother. She was an ardent, compulsive reader of literature and passed the obsession on her to actor grandson. In her waning years, while going blind, her thirst for words remained strong, and her family honored it.
As Thursday night’s two-hour show wound down (a while after some restless patrons had taken their leave), the Shakespeare sonnet, an ode to memory, resurfaced from the collective memories of those onstage — and expressed a deepened meaning even for those who had simply been listening. We all carried that final recitation (in English and Portuguese) with us, into the chilly Seattle night.