HPR’s By Heart is smart, timely and showcases the power of words

By Heart

Presented by the High Performance Rodeo and Teatro Nacional D. Maria II

Runs until Thursday at the Big Secret Theatre

Four stars out of five

One part English lit class, one part personal monologue, and one part a secret political survival strategy, By Heart is pure High Performance Rodeo, in all its idiosyncratic glory. It’s a little bit unconventional, a little bit participatory, completely accessible, and makes you stop afterward, and have a chat in the hallway with whoever you bump into about what you just saw.

Created and performed by Portuguese actor Tiego Rodriguez, the story is this:

As a child, Rodriguez was taught by his grandmother, a voracious reader, that the highest compliment and respect you could pay an author was to learn their work by heart. As a result, Rodriguez grows up devouring many of Grandma’s books — everything from Shakespeare to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 — committing so many of them to heart that he ends up an actor, able to consume large swaths of text in a single bound.

To theatricalize grandma’s point, Rodriguez, who’s funny and charming, intelligent and amiable and speaks better English than most English-only-speaking actors, brings 10 audience members onstage to help him.

Their task, it turns out, will be to commit a Shakespearean sonnet to memory — and to perform it for the audience by the end of the show, 80 minutes later.

It’s a bit of an oddball objective, but there’s no question that pulling a bunch of non-actors onstage and tasking them with memorizing some tricky centuries-old text creates instant dramatic tension — sort of the same way your Grade 12 English teacher always knew she could create the same thing by forcing the pothead rocker dudes in the back corner to talk about whatever book she’d assigned the class to read.

What’s not so apparent at first glance, however, is the backstory of the transformational power of language — and how political dictators have always sought ways to suppress words over the centuries, because one of the tricks to being a successful dictator is re-invent reality.

In By Heart, Rodriguez shares the story of a Russian poet (not one of the famous ones), whose poetry so threatened the political authorities that they imprisoned, tortured and murdered him, then burned all his books.

His widow, in response, would hold secret meetings in the kitchen of her house, where she would teach 10 people one of her husband’s poems — and then she would ask each of them to go out and teach the poem to 10 more people, that way keeping her husband’s words alive.

That’s when the larger metaphor of bringing 10 people up on stage to learn a Shakespearean sonnet starts to become more apparent.

If its most overt objective is to make a political point, By Heart is also a poignant reminder to theatre-makers everywhere that while images and video are nice, nothing matches words as a stage superpower.

By Heart is a true Rodeo beauty of a show: accessible, as personable as it is smart, timely and political — and ultimately, hopeful about the human possibilities of words.

Stephen Hunt is the 2017 High Performance Rodeo writer in residence. He wrote about theatre for the Calgary Herald for 10 years, and teaches playwriting at UBC. He is also the author of The White Guy: A Field Guide. Follow his HPR blog here.

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