Contemporary theater is made and interpreted in the “post-” age: postmodern, poststructuralist and postdramatic. But, post-Hamlet? Indeed, Obie-winning director Annie Dorsen may have invented a new movement with A Piece of Work which closes the Next Wave festival at BAM’s Fisher Theater this week Subtitled “A Machine-Made Hamlet,” it does not wonder “whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer […] or to take arms against a sea of troubles,” but rather asks if we are so familiar with the existential dilemma of the sweet prince of Elsinore that we can dispense with the tragedy and have some fun with the text.
The show, whose title may reference as much the difficulty of categorizing this novel “piece of work” as Hamlet’s speech in Act II, Scene 2 which uses the same line, was created using Markov chains. These, for the uninitiated, are rather unhelpfully defined in the program notes as “N-gram models,” or “finite state machines.” Some further reading is necessary to understand that, in actual layman’s terms, Dorsen has worked some serious mumbo jumbo on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Those algorithmic processes have been employed, first, to sample 5% of the text and order it randomly; next, to sort lines of the play by keywords and the soliloquies by grammatical structures; and then to generate new scenes by resequencing words and finally just letters of the text. The lines, words and letters selected are delivered by the kind of disembodied voices of automated phone systems but are also, at times, fed via an earpiece to a live actor (Scott Shepard of the Wooster Group and Elevator Repair Service, or theater veteran Joan Macintosh, on alternate nights) who repeats them in the same emotionless monotone. The process runs anew each night to generate a new version of A Piece of Work at every performance.
For the experiment to hit its mark, Dorsen’s audience would ideally have a ready familiarity with the original text: the fun lies in being surprised by the oddly amusing combinations, as well as the lacunae, the algorithms generate as they skip crazily across the text like a pebble on the surface of a lake. Because A Piece of Work‘s pseudo-AI experiment sometimes feels a bit flippant, it might also help to know that Dorsen’s intention with this exercise that reboots and reloads fresh every night, is to approach a “continuous present” on stage.
But what can be learned about Hamlet as either a text or a tragedy when the most famous soliloquy of Western theater is jumbled to read, “To be and not to be: that is a room”? Or from the juxtaposition of dozens of lines that begin “O…” (as in “O, I am slain”)? More meaty was the re-generated final scene, which, on the night I attended, jumbled the chronology so that Hamlet died before his duel with Laertes, yet Fortinbras still arrived to clean up the mess (even when Shakespeare is rewritten by computers, he still dots his i’s with a neat ending). In the same way, the excerpted whole text, with which the evening begins, challenges the audience to instantly call up any vestigial knowledge of the original or get lost in the rapid-fire progression of abbreviated scenes. A common response might go like this: “Wait a minute… What happened to Hamlet’s first moody appearance at court? Was that Polonius getting stabbed for a split second? Does Ophelia die at all?…” I could almost feel the synapses firing all around me in the theater.
If Dorsen, or rather the algorithms she is relying on, create a new text every night, they do something more: purged of casting, costuming and sets (notwithstanding a dais, a curtain and some smoke to conjure up King Hamlet’s ghost), this piece-of-a-work-in-progress-cum-Hamlet questions the nature of the theater text: its exits, entrances, stage directions, organization, asides, etc., and the debated need, in a postdramatic context, for live actors to enable any of what happens on stage. At the same time, authorship of this “piece” is challenged, as Dorsen pushes the responsibility for everything we hear and see on an unthinking machine (programmed by Mark Hansen). She is evidently plowing ground broken more daringly by the 20th century American author and modernist visionary Gertrude Stein, who coined the “continuous present” and who worked hard to achieve “a beginning again and again and again and again”, by hand as it were, unaided by technology. Stein’s humanly arrived at results are much more intriguing than Dorsen’s, which, in comparison, feel cold and flat, despite the laughs.
Every thinking person today knows we are just data to be mined by Google, the NSA and our credit card companies. Algorithms reveal for them “who” we are and allow them to make decisions about us. Does algorithmically created art speak best to our algorithmically defined selves? Long ago, in one writer’s imagination,, a young man stood on the parapets of a mist shrouded castle, haunted by a murder and the idea of avenging it. If we can’t avoid being swallowed up by the machine, theater is still part of the shrinking landscape of our contemporary societies where we can dream and where we can meet our human selves and wonder at their mysteries. A Piece of Work shuns the mystery, but at a cost. It’s a little like going to the prom with a robot; it might get the job done but it’s not sexy enough to make you want to lean in for a kiss.