False Peach is a piece of work Feb 22, 2013

by Sophia

I choose to read nothing about Annie Dorsen's, A Piece of Work before I saw it. I wanted to see how my experience alone informed me.

For this performance this approach further highlights how much of Hamlet one has come to know - (perchance to dream). And within moments into the production one is thrown into the experience of balancing what they think they know and the difference to what they are actually experiencing.
The stage set is similar to the bleached bones of a whale found on a beach. One sees the exposed framework of a stage, with a hole cutout in the center, a white curtain raised off the floor to the side, a modern rolling office desk chair, a few monitors and for a while, one man. (Enter Hamlet)

The starkness means you notice every detail.
The first - at the initial blackout - was when the actor enters and all you can see is a small red glow of an electronic light. (Something is afoot.) The light comes on and the actor addresses the audience - "To be or not to be.."  and, so far, we are in familiar territory - then the world we know shifts as he shuttles through a cascade of options - each time starting with "To be or not to be.... this is the word" , "To be or not to be this is the world" , "To be or not to be this is the lord." While he changes the words ever so slightly, his cadence and rhythm refer to a meaning we faintly remember while forcing one to notice the range of options. He is a crazed man but who makes sense to himself  - Hamlet was on the edge after all, wasn't he? He reminds me of an uncle who recently had a stroke - he knows what he is saying and we are left to observe our attempts to decipher.
In between distinct sections the lights go dim and we see computer text projected. Instructions? One attempts to make sense of them as they show up twice briefly. We are given the briefest of time to make sense which amplifies the sense of having to keep up to make sense of things. (Alice in Wonderland - like)
The actor is informal - clad in jeans, a suede baseball style jacket, headphones, he often touches his hair or his earpiece as he fluidly delivers his serpentine-ing lines.

Did I mention noticing details? Life is in the details.

Lines become isolated words - and dislocated from being able to make sense one instead is aware of the sounds, sounds of the words, phrasing, pauses, the different ways to inflect the same word. Repetition becomes a devise to hear, to see (in the visual depiction of the words) to know something differently. This contrasts with distinctly human poignant "not said" moments at the end of sections as he gestures or reacts before the lights go black.

The piece starts with a human element then switches to computer generated voices exclusively. Removing the element of an actor, instead we are given and seek structure by images and sound alone. The devices explored are varied. Written stage time markers are projected, such as Act I, Scene 1. Then as Act 1, Scene 1 is repeated 4 to 5 times we see how the words are parsed and how we fill in unconsciously what we already have heard to make sense. Another section employs visual cues; when you see the text (Bernardo at his post) it is always accompanied with a ceiling projection of a crescent moon. We can imagine with this tinniest of images a parapet of a castle at night - again, no doubt drawing upon past productions of Hamlet seen.

In the rapid jumble that follows, these devices becomes funny as they cycle through various visual devises. In one section, stage directions get assigned a sound (a la Prokofiev's, "Peter in the Wolf"). And hearing each instance of death accompanied by a short solemn funeral dirge one experiences both the humor of the pairing and the extraordinary amount of death in the play.  Characters become their words visually projected on a screen. They are differentiated by the sound of their voice or the color of the lights. In one section Ophelia 's words are accompanied by a warmer orange light which flickers at each word like the computer character Hal from Stanley Kubrick's, 2001. The image of the moon becomes Bernardo at his post, Polonius is his waver-y voice, and the Ghost a disembodied voice followed by a burst of fog. In another section - emotions are assigned numbers. In another, all the expressions beginning with O as in "O dear" of every character is pulled out of context and become a literal catalogue of such expressions. We may not feel the emotion with the computer voice but we certainly see how humans rely on such phrasing. Each device is explored to such a length that one senses the connections after ones brain has become saturated. The repetition floods our ability to make sense.

This production lost some of the audience as a few people became frustrated by the repetition. It became almost part of the imagery of the piece as some people began to file away. Again, ALL details became a part of what one used to make sense of it all - so the gentle billowing curtain, the puff of the fog and the lingering wisp of fog, the ornate projection for the queens closet all carried equal weight. 

It takes a "letting go" into the repetition to actually come to appreciate and notice the details. Years ago, I discovered the way to enjoy traditional Shakespeare was to let go of having to understand every word but to instead focus on the sense of the meaning which became evident and clear by the way the actors conveyed their feeling. One can similarly understand someone speaking a foreign language if understanding individual words becomes impossible. This experience is similar. We notice how a human conveys meaning and how a computer can without emotional inflection but by repeating words can change or isolate the meaning.

I was happy it ended at 9:10 for my brain was tired. But I can say I am noticing the details more. And for that I can thank the play. Perhaps now I’ll go back and read those well written program notes…