Did Gertrude just call Hamlet fat? Did Claudius just coin the term “drincestuous”? Did Hamlet intend a racial slur when he uttered, “O gook pale”?
Annie Dorsen’s mesmerizing, maddening, and agreeably peculiar A Piece of Work at BAM incites and invites such questions. An example of what Dorsen terms “algorithmic theater,” this 70-minute piece features Shakespeare’s Danish tragedy reimagined and refracted by a computer program. The first act extracts a random 5 percent of the play. The last creates a fresh finale using an analytic mode known as Markov chains. Throughout, light shines on a bare platform as automated voices pronounce the computer’s selections, which appear projected on a rear screen.
Some stretches of A Piece of Work can seem immaterial, extraneous, or simply dull. The live presence of Scott Shepherd, the actor who played Hamlet in the recent Wooster Group version, should provide more of a contrast with the computerized voices, but as he speaks in intentionally low-affect tones, he really doesn’t. (Shepherd alternates in the role with Joan MacIntosh.)
Mostly, however, the work charms, delights, and provides rather more philosophy than Horatio might dream. As Hamlet is Western lit’s archetypal work about human consciousness, it’s a cunning move to ask a nonhuman one to interpret it; although, as Dorsen, Shepherd, and various associates have programmed the computer, it’s debatable just how nonhuman that consciousness is. Essentially, A Piece of Work — like Dorsen’s bravura chatbot piece Hello Hi There — reveals our humanistic bias, how desperately we want to assign presence and intent even to mere lines of code.
By the time the final act arrives, we have somehow become invested in the computer’s choices, admiring it when it stumbles upon an astute combination of words, laughing with it when it lucks into amusing ones. Even as we know the program’s choices are random, we want to see them as purposeful, inspired. When Horatio, closing the scene, intones, “Good night pring,” it seems awfully sweet.