Mysterious Journey

Underneath the Lintel is a compelling hunt for meaning.

Underneath the Lintel is a seventy-minute one-act play that takes the form of a lecture by a buttoned-up, pedantic, spiritually timid Dutch ex-librarian. Peering into the audience at the very beginning, he lets us know that he's disappointed by the turnout (despite the fact that the Aurora Fox theater is comfortably full). He's pasted notices all over town, he says, but they got torn down or covered over. The librarian has props to help with his presentation: a map of Europe, a screen, a pointer and -- round his neck -- the date-stamper he saved from his library job. This is precious to him, he says, because it contains every possible date, including the day of his death. Most important, he has a large trunk, which he sometimes uses as a lectern and from which he pulls bits and pieces of evidence -- a pair of trousers, a Roman coin, forms, letters and receipts, a piece of dried dung.

This man lived invisibly in the town of Hoofddorp, retrieving dropped-off books and sending notices to tardy borrowers until, in 1999, he found a Baedeker tome that had been checked out in 1873. Astonished, he embarked on a journey to find out who had kept the book so long, a journey that took him to England, Germany, China, Australia and the United States, inquiring about laundries and quarantined dogs, tracking historical and biblical events, noting pieces of conversation and grabbing at scraps of paper -- in short, following one strange and unlikely piece of evidence after another, and in the process taking in productions of Les Misérablesin three languages.

The weird thing is that in its own demented way, the entire chain of events is completely logical, and also rather beautifully evocative. But eventually, everything the librarian unearths seems to point to a conclusion that makes logic impossible: that the irresponsible borrower was a mythical figure -- the Wandering Jew. This is the man who, according to an anti-Semitic medieval folktale, jeered at Jesus on the day of his crucifixion or, as the story is told here, refused to allow Jesus to rest at his doorway (under the lintel) out of fear and was condemned to travel the earth until the Second Coming, never resting or finding a home.

James Nantz in Underneath the Lintel.
James Nantz in Underneath the Lintel.

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Presented through November 9
303-361-2910
Aurora Fox Arts Center, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora

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We don't know if it's inspiration or insanity that brings our librarian to this idea, but the revelation shakes the foundations of his constricted little world. If the Wandering Jew exists, that means anything is possible. It means God may exist, too, and miracles. And it says something about human nature and the meaning and significance of life that the librarian is compelled to unravel.

For me, Underneath the Lintel became a little less absorbing at this point. I loved the librarian's careful, step-by-step exegesis of his theory. But once the miraculous entered the picture, so, too, did a whole welter of speculation, anecdote, bits of knowledge (a rather wonderful dissertation on the origin of the term "red herring," for example), as well as memories both rhapsodic and wretched. No doubt the play's language, with its intermingling of the profound and the thuddingly obvious, accurately reflects our librarian's dizzy state of mind, but it sometimes felt repetitious and tendentious to me as an audience member.

Ultimately, Underneath the Lintel is wide open to interpretation. At points it feels as though the librarian's quest has been redemptive: In following in the footsteps of the fabled Jew, noting the persistent and unfinished ways in which the doomed man made his presence known, the librarian has found a kind of freedom and self-assertion. "I am here," he declaims. But you could as easily read the entire riddle and his inability to solve it as a wrenching defeat. It feels as if playwright Glen Berger is searching for something that he hasn't quite found yet. But it's an investigation worth taking alongside him.

Underneath the Lintelis meticulously directed by Terry Dodd. I particularly liked the symbolic use of the map. At first the librarian used it to point out the sites to which he'd traveled; as he moved farther and farther away from familiar territory, however, he increasingly found himself pointing not at the brightly colored map, but at the shadows beyond it. James Nantz gives a beautiful performance in the role -- prissy and uptight at the beginning without becoming a caricature, then slowly, if ambiguously, loosening up. Does that little caper near the end presage a complete mental breakdown, or is it the sign of some kind of victory?

 
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