Underneath the Lintel is a deceivingly simple story of a librarian tracking down the patron who borrowed and returned a long overdue book which transitions into an unanticipated life journey. Paul Morella, date stamp hanging around his neck like a trophy or cherished medal of honor, is an absolute marvel as the lowly clerk.
When we meet him, the librarian is attacking his work like a zealot with no more important purpose in life than checking the books’ inner pocket cards (remember those?) for the due dates and scowling at tardy ones that might be several days or (gasp) a week overdue. Once he demonstrates his savant ability to recall obscure events that occurred on specific dates, we can understand his growing fascination with patron “A” who returned a book 113 years after it was due.
Busily attending to his paperwork even while the audience enters the theater, Morella, as the meticulous, unnamed Dutch librarian, relays the message of a stalled life just waiting to happen. He who has never traveled outside of his city, becomes so intrigued by the unfolding circumstances and historical events marking the mysterious patron’s life that he starts off on a journey to track him down.
This simple librarian, who was once comfortably ensconced in his own nondescript daily routines and rhythms of life, finds himself visiting places he had only read about in books. Almost before he knows it, he’s traveling to Bonn, Germany, offering tidbits about the demolishing and rebuilding of the city over various wars. As each new clue unfolds, the librarian demonstrates the steady tenacity of someone on a life mission to find the answers and uncover the truth. Each potential “what if”, becoming more bizarre with every disclosure, brings him closer to the patron’s possible identity.
It was actually quite refreshing to watch the character pose a question about something, then fling himself into real books or an atlas rather than flip a switch or pound a keyboard to summon the all powerful Google. What a reminder that people conducted research via paper products before ubiquitous knowledge was trapped in the clouds. And through it all, you could feel the librarian’s excitement while unraveling the mysteries and his nearly sensuous fixation on catalogs, reference books, and … drum roll … the now nearly defunct Dewey Decimal System.
It’s such a pleasure watching one of the metro area’s finest actors tackle material that fits him like a glove. Morella’s physical manifestations change as he portrays the librarian’s journeys across the world on his quest for answers. Hunched over his papers in the beginning, stuck in the rut of a quiet self-imposed recluse, the librarian becomes more animated and expressive with each new clue. He eventually even grapples with the implications about the tale of the shoemaker at the time of Jesus, who, standing underneath the lintel of his establishment, turned a condemned man away, and was condemned to life-times of restlessness, ever referred to as the nomadic “Wandering Jew.”
The multipurpose scenic design by James Kronzer (the set is shared with MetroStage’s Thousandth Night) consists of a jumble of artifacts from travels and research — old suitcases strewn about, stacks of books, a string of clipped papers and notes encased in plastic sheets hung on a clothesline for easy access.
The librarian is the ultimate researcher and, like a pitbull, doesn’t let up. When his clues go nowhere, he explains the positive side of a “red herring.” It may not move you forward or closer to the answer, but at least it’s moving you along, sideways even backwards, a step or two is better than staying stuck.
The engaging script by Glen Berger and whimsical direction by John Vreeke move us along bit by bit until we are also intrigued by the journey of this obsessesing librarian. If we could just kick up our heels at the end with sheer exuberance, as does the librarian, that would be victorious — the production nudges that anything is possible, if we would just make the choice.
That’s the essence of this simple tale of a man’s journey to find a mysterious stranger— the importance of being here, present, and aware that life cloaks tiny miracles in ordinary moments. Watch this show and see for yourself how the messages sneak up on you, and seep into your being.
Shown in repertory with another master storyteller, Marcus Kyd in Carol Wolf’s The Thousandth Night, both plays offer mid-week talk-backs to help explore the moments, offering opportunities to explore the possibilities. Who knows, the insights could be as unexpectedly life changing as an overdue book dumped in the library bin.
Underneath the Lintel by Glen Berger . Directed by John Vreeke . Starring Paul Morella . Scenic design: James Kronzer . Lighting design: Alex Keen . Sound design: Robert Garner . Produced by MetroStage . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.
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