Literature is the great love of my life. And yet I’ve never liked memorization or recitation: Shel Silverstein and Maya Angelou in grade school, Yeats and my own slam poems in college. It was laborious, and the words always seemed to slip away back to the page when I wasn’t looking.
But the playwright and actor Tiago Rodrigues has changed my mind. In “By Heart,” his trenchant Brooklyn Academy of Music debut, he invites 10 audience members to memorize Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30. As he coaches them through the lines, he breaks to talk about memorization as a personal and sometimes even revolutionary act, annotating his exercise with historical anecdotes, quoted excerpts from F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ray Bradbury, and his own life. He talks, for example, about his grandmother Candida, a voracious reader who learns she’s going blind and asks Rodrigues to help her pick a book to learn by heart before her vision completely fails.
Rodrigues uses his memorization exercise to create an intimate performance that connects people through text. Though perhaps “performance” isn’t quite the right word; Rodrigues, who was recently appointed as director of the Avignon Festival in France, chafes at any claims of theatricality in his production. Dressed casually in a T-shirt and jeans, he sits on a stool among a semicircle of chairs and a few stacks of books on wooden crates. “Everything will be calm and normal,” he reassured the audience at the show I attended. “I’m 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 swoops and waves of the forearms, and flicks of the wrists, punctuated by sharp breaths, to indicate “repeat, repeat, repeat.”
That repetition gets tiresome, especially because the show ends only when the 10 volunteers can recite the poem in full. (The running time is estimated between 90 minutes and two hours; on my night, it was closer to 90.) In these moments, the show lags, but Rodrigues doesn’t waver from his 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 assignment?
The difference here is what Rodrigues leads us to in the end: a statement about how the texts we hold in our memory become the “decoration for the house of our interior,” according to the literary critic George Steiner, whom Rodrigues quotes at length.
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 (masked, vaccinated) people after months of isolation and fear. True, but more miraculous still was the communal act of translation that allowed each of us to inhabit the text.
The sonnet is now changed. I don’t just think of how it might sound in my own voice, but also recall the woman at one end of the semicircle who stumbled through the fifth line of the poem. I hear the charged delivery of the woman in the third chair, and the speedy, confident recitation of the man in Seat 7. And I think of Rodrigues’s grandmother, trying her best to transform herself into a book in which great words — large, heady words and sleek, shiny words and words of love and death — may reside.
After the show, as I waited for the subway, I read the poem aloud — once, then twice and again. The train pulled up, and I was so engrossed in the text, I nearly missed it. So give me some lines to memorize. I’m now a believer.
Through Oct. 17 at the BAM Fisher, Brooklyn; bam.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.