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  • Jim Findlay

My, my. A Piece of Work, Annie Dorsen's experiment in an algorithmic Hamlet, kicked up a shitstorm this weekend at On the Boards.

Quick background: It featured actor Scott Shepherd (the narrator in Gatz, the hours-long and well-loved stage version of The Great Gatsby at OtB in 2007) and several computer voices, which chopped up and rearranged Hamlet with Markov chains and other manipulations. The lighting and sound design were also auto-generated, based on whatever words (each given an emotion score) popped up.

As Dorsen said in an interview in this week's paper: "We'll just push play, sit back, and watch. We're running the show with no human intervention." Even Shepherd only said or did what the computer told him.

I rather liked it, but some people haaaated it. One friend texted me after opening night: "Hamlet machine is a pain generator." Playwright and sometime Stranger theater critic Bret Fetzer railed against the show on Facebook:

I've seen some terrible, awful, idiotic theater, but never has my time been so wholly wasted by such a bloodless execution of a sliver of an idea — not even an idea, a deliberate lack of an idea, a mechanism to remove any thought or human response.

The show is different every night, of course, and I saw a version last night that was under an hour. (Bret saw a version that was well over an hour.) But I found its word salad moving and sometimes haunting—a further fracturing of Ophelia's pained speeches (at one point, she kept saying "I think nothing"), the repetition and wordplay of the despairing Hamlet pushed into more repetition and wordplay. It helped to be a Hamlet nerd, of course. The phrases of A Piece of Work were like little ghosts or shards of memory, traces of characters or scenes. If you weren't familiar with them already, the shards would be meaningless.

But Fetzer is certainly familiar with Hamlet—familiarity didn't guarantee that A Piece of Work would work.

I walked in fearing that it would make no sense at all. I haven't been able to get excerpts of the text from last night's performance (other than little notes like "young men, by cock, they are to blame" and "king's offenses gilded law"), but I worried it would look like this paragraph from my preview, ground by a short online Markov chain into total babble:

mistical mission of then of the Mart eververything with no accept everyin working trying thing differything the rical mistion to accept eventerything with a political missess. "Hamlet—strying witichly human as as a political mission text with a distre runnism, dripping wor Cage

But it was more like this (a slightly longer Markov chain from the same preview):

Apart from proto-Kantianism, consciousnesses trying different. For Cage, it was a distillation of the whole play, dripping with "Hamlet—strenuously working the richly human text when she began as a fairly simple game. Dorsen says. "We're running the show with no human intervention." The Markov chain was a political and spiritual mission to accept everything with a spiritual mission to accept everything with "Hamlet-ness."

That, like A Piece of Work, has shades of meaning, hints of ideas. And in one segment towards the beginning, Shepherd started speaking a long Markov chain—which was essentially whole lines taken from the play—that slowly devolved into total gibberish. Watching the dissolution was like watching an ice sculpture melt in fast motion.

Fetzer is correct in saying that A Piece of Work was mostly bloodless—programs, not people, were the stars of the show—but it wasn't meaningless. After last night's performance, Dorsen said they'd continue to tinker with their machine for upcoming dates in Norway, Paris, and New York. Maybe I caught a better night with the machine than others did, or maybe I was just more inclined to enjoy the experiment.

Whether people liked it or not, she got further than would-be provocateurs like Jan Fabre in his Orgy of Tolerance at OtB in 2009. (Somehow, Fabre managed to make onstage sodomy with a rifle barrel dull. Major performance fail.)

By playing with a text as familiar as Hamlet, Dorsen did provoke and polarize her audience. (I've felt far more aggrieved about my wasted time at conventional plays.) In that respect, she did what she set out to do.