Produced by: American Conservatory Theater
Featuring: David Strathairn
Directed by: Carey Perloff
When: October 23-November 17, 2013
Where: A.C.T.'s Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco, California
Tickets:$20 and up
to find moments of decision
at A.C.T. in San Francisco
Let us proceed.
"Underneath the Lintel" is an existential one-man play. It begins with a simple librarian, played by Academy Award nominee David Strathairn, walking onto the stage and informing the audience of his renting the theater for the evening. Strathairn's presence on the stage is convincing. He speaks with a Dutch accent, and carries himself in such a way as to convince us that he barely has enough time to tell us his story.
It is a tale that at first appears to be mundane, but soon becomes a cosmic search for a mysterious man who is known only as "A." Strathairn carries the performance alone, using various objects as evidence and weaving a compelling story.
The librarian's tale begins when he finds a tattered old book in a return bin that is 113 years overdue. He finds an interesting message in the margins of the book and sets off on a quest to discover who borrowed the book. His search leads him all over the globe, and the librarian, who remains nameless throughout the play, becomes a detective, collecting clues from "A's" mysterious past. Soon our librarian discovers that the trail leads back thousands of years. The search consumes the eccentric librarian until he sacrifices his job for it. Putting clues together, the evidence paints a portrait of the human soul wandering through life, leaving small objects behind proving its existence.
The bits and pieces of life are evident in the incredible stage design by Scenic Designer Nina Ball. The set is filled with the detritus from living: forgotten possessions, old vases, clothing, and numerous boxes. The atmosphere is that of a rundown establishment. Strathairn, playing the Dutch librarian, says at the beginning of the play: "This place, it's not great, but it's the nicest place I could afford." Ball's design evokes a sense of history while emphasizing the various objects that are strewn about the stage. His lecture is buttressed by the 20th-century technology he uses in his presentation: an old Kodak Carousel slide projector, and a cassette tape deck remind the audience of a time before digital technology became an everyday part of our lives.
Objects drawn from his suitcase, and from other spots on the stage prove central to the librarian's story. Starting with the beat-up copy of "Baedeker's Travel Guide" and the dry cleaning receipt he found in it, our librarian starts to travel the globe in search of the man who last checked it out.
After finding a number of clues, he is convinced that he is searching for the mythical wandering Jew, a man cursed to walk the Earth, never to rest, until the end of days. It is this librarian's search that transforms him into a wanderer as well.
The play is well directed, by A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff, and Strathairn's choreographed moves about the stage made the illusion of traveling more tangible.
The entire play takes place against the backdrop of time. Dates are important. The discovery in 1986 of the overdue book from 1873 is followed by another date, 1913. Soon we are traveling through history, following the librarian as he travels around the world. But Strathairn's character wastes no time reminding us that time is passing, muttering again and again about how we "must proceed." In fact the suggestion to keep moving is a motif that playwright Glen Berger returns to repeatedly.
The title of the play: "Underneath the Lintel," is a powerful metaphor. The symbol of the lintel literally as the beam that supports the structure where a door is located is an interesting one. The lintel is found hovering over the space where the interior meets the exterior. It is a place of change, a place of decision.
The librarian failed in a crucial moment when he was underneath the lintel, sending away the only girl he truly loved. It is this self-imposed wound that drives him to a spiritual crisis and ultimately on this search with the clues he has found. There is much more to this image of the lintel, but to reveal more would take the surprise out of the play.
Berger speaks about how klezmer music inspired him to write the play. Berger describes it as "the 'dancing-despite-it-all' quality," that inspired him. Indeed, he has written a remarkable play that is a mash up of "Where in the World is Carmen San Diego" with Søren Kierkegaard and his idea of living the passionate life.
As the play closes, Strathairn, who for 90 minutes has carried the character and the audience on his shoulders, discovers that in the face of all of the challenges and difficulties, he can still dance through life. Somehow, after losing his passion for life, he rediscovered his zest for life. It's a hopeful ending to his search and despite the loose ends and mysterious conclusion, there was something deeply satisfying about how Straithairn, dancing a joyful jig, exits the stage.
The immortal elements of the story might lead some people to describe this play as a ghost story, but I would beg to differ. If the wandering jew is a ghost, then we are all ghosts, wandering through this life, searching for a way to dance through it all. "Underneath the Lintel" is a play that describes life at the crossroads of the moment and the human need to leave small clues behind, proving that we do indeed exist.
"Underneath the Lintel" will be playing at the American Conservatory Theater until November 17, 2013. After that, it will be up to us to continue dancing.