Review: “By heart” commits the community to memory


Literature is the great love of my life. And yet, I never liked memorization or recitation: Shel Silverstein and Maya Angelou in elementary school, Yeats and my own slam poems in college. It was laborious, and words always seemed to come back to the page when I wasn’t looking.

But the playwright and actor Tiago Rodrigues made me change my mind. In “By heart,” his impactful debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, he invites 10 members of the public to memorize Shakespeare’s work Sonnet 30. As he guides them through the lines, he speaks of memorization as a personal and sometimes even revolutionary act, annotating his exercise with historical anecdotes, citing excerpts from F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ray Bradbury, and his own. life. For example, he talks about his grandmother Candida, a voracious reader who learns that she is going blind and asks Rodrigues to help him choose a book to learn by heart before his vision completely falters.

Rodrigues uses his memorization exercise to create an intimate performance that connects people through text. Although perhaps “performance” is not quite the right word; Rodrigues, who was recently appointed director of the Festival d’Avignon in France, is irritated by any pretension to the theatricality of his production. Casually dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, he sits on a stool amid a semicircle of chairs and a few stacks of books on wooden crates. “Everything will be calm and normal,” he reassured the audience of the show I attended. “I am also allergic to interactive theater.

Rodrigues then asks for volunteers, and breaks down a poem line by line with the 10 of them, leading like a conductor. He gestures with certain phrases – large movements and waves of the forearms and movements of the wrists, punctuated with sudden breaths, to indicate “repeat, repeat, repeat.”

This rehearsal becomes boring, especially since the show only ends when the 10 volunteers can recite the entire poem. (The running time is estimated to be between 90 minutes and two hours; my night it was closer to 90.) In these times, the show drags on, but Rodrigues does not deviate from its leisurely pace. Because isn’t that part of the whole process – that slow, seemingly endless, line-by-line, word-by-word breakdown until the day of the show or mission?

The difference here is what Rodrigues ultimately leads us to: a statement about how the texts we keep in our memory become the “home decoration of our interior,” according to literary critic George Steiner, whom Rodrigues quotes extensively.

At one point, Rodrigues – who has presented “By Heart” in France, Spain, Canada and his native Portugal – reflects on how miraculous it is to be in a space with other people (masked, vaccinated ) after months of isolation and fear. Certainly, but even more miraculous was the community act of translation which allowed everyone to inhabit the text.

The sonnet is now changed. I don’t just think about what that might sound like in my own voice, but I also remember the woman at one end of the semicircle who tripped over the fifth line of the poem. I hear the busy delivery of the woman in the third chair and the quick and confident recitation of the man in seat 7. And I think of Rodrigues’ grandmother, doing her best to turn into a book in which big words – big, heady words and smooth, shiny words and words of love and death – can reside.

After the show, while I was waiting for the metro, I read the poem aloud – once, then twice and again. The train stopped and I was so wrapped up in the text that I almost missed it. So give me a few lines to memorize. I am now a believer.

By heart
Until October 17 at BAM Fisher, Brooklyn; Duration: 1h30.


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