Even though Underneath the Lintel has been attracting crowds and winning awards on the Fringe circuit (voted Best Solo Show, 2011 Minnesota Fringe Festival; voted Best Solo Show, 2012 London Fringe Festival; chosen as Best of the Fest, 2013 Orlando Fringe Festival), it doesn’t feel like it belongs in a festival. The script by Glen Berger and the performance by Patrick O’Brien are so exceptional that this piece deserves a place in a theater where it can be seen more than a handful of times at annual occurrences that happen for a week or three each year.
This is not to say it feels out of place at the Capital Fringe: there are plenty of elements that make it familiar to festival-goers. It’s a one-person show that thrives in a barebones setting. At Goethe Institut the performance begins before the official start time: O’Brien fusses about, setting up his easel and paper, his slide projector, and his pointer. He is already in character, playing the role of a hyper-organized librarian who relishes order and familiarity. He wants everything just so.
You can tell where this is going: as the narrative unfolds the librarian is swept into an adventure that dissolves his reliance on control and predictability. In order to track down a borrower who returned a book 123-years after it was due, the librarian sets off on a journey. In typical fringe fashion two stories blend together: the librarian’s search for this “Mr. Mystery” who signed his name “A.” intertwines with the librarian’s discovery of his own desires and doubts.
What makes this show unlike other festival offerings is its brilliant script and stellar acting. There is no missed opportunity or poorly chosen word. Each scene links immediately or eventually to another. The web of details and interactions turns the story into a gripping tale of cultural differences, historical trends, and philosophical insight.
The title comes from a story the librarian tells about the legend of “The Wandering Jew.” “Lintel” refers to the frame above a doorway or threshold. The title could also refer to how our decisions steer the course of our lives, and each time we step through a doorway or encounter a threshold, we have the ability to follow a set and patterned way of behaving or shift directions.
Underneath the Lintel
by Glen Berger
at Goethe Institut
812 7th Street NW
Washington, DC, 20001
Details and tickets
Underneath the Lintel made me keenly aware of both the power and failure of language. O’Brien is terrific at timing his lines so that Berger’s facility with words and meanings are brought to light, but ultimately the play’s message of noticing and savoring the joys and beauties of surprises or unexpected moments works against language. Certain sights, sounds, and feelings defy translation into words.
It is here that O’Brien’s skills as an actor become more apparent. He makes physical the character of the librarian so that words are not needed to convey frustration, disappointment, or regret. He is captivating to watch as the narrative transforms him, either stammering when he is overwhelmed or sweating and gasping by the end of the show. His descriptions of the characters he describes, not only “A.” but also his co-worker, are so vivid that I found myself picturing what they looked like, how they moved. Even though the audience remained seated throughout the performance, I felt like I was traveling with O’Brien.
This is one of the most exciting performances of Capital Fringe and impressive for its ability to adhere to certain conventions (O’Brien is on stage, the audience is sedentary; he speaks, we listen) while creating a transformative experience. Part of this excitement comes from O’Brien’s risk-taking: his ability to venture into his character’s life, allowing the tale to transform him.
Like a great dancer, O’Brien sustains the perfect tension between structure and improvisation. His lines are set, but his delivery is completely in the moment. With O’Brien as this show’s dependable and adventurous guide, I felt like a willing and curious participant on the journey.
Underneath the Lintel is one of those trips I would gladly take again. And again. And again.