It's around 10 a.m. in the lobby of On the Boards, and director Annie Dorsen is complaining over a cup of coffee that it's "too early" to talk about Immanuel Kant, John Cage, algorithms, "dirty" versus "clean" conceptual art, and what all that has to do with her new project to digitally deconstruct Hamlet. But Dorsen, an Obie Award–winning director and cocreator of the musical Passing Strange, has only herself to blame. She brought it up.
Inside the theater, her team of programmers and designers is busy debugging and fine-tuning "the machine," a complex network of lights, sound, text, and math that will, with the help of actor Scott Shepherd, perform her recombinant Hamlet. Or maybe it isn't "her" Hamlet—the entire show will be auto-generated every night, and even Shepherd is at the mercy of the machine, which will tell him what to say and when.
"We'll just push play, sit back, and watch," Dorsen says. "We're running the show with no human intervention." Her expression is a combination of worried, trying-to-not-look-worried, and thrilled.
This world-premiere experiment, formerly known as False Peach but recently retitled A Piece of Work (she's debugging the title, too), began as a fairly simple game. Dorsen decided to push Hamlet through the grinder of a Markov chain—an algorithmic process that, in this case, takes a given number of words, then randomly leaps to a logical connecting word, adds the next word, then leaps again.
For instance, take the play's most famous line: "To be or not to be, that is the question."