When I was eleven, someone gave me two worn, maroon volumes, both titled Sunday. Each was a treasure trove, a kind of rag bag of poems, stories about the origin of words and common phrases, cautionary tales, illustrations and anecdotes about “our beloved queen” — who happened to be Victoria. One of those anecdotes involved a beggar who, for some unknown reason, had been invited to the palace for tea. As most working people did, he poured the hot liquid into his saucer to cool and drank from there — a terrible breach of protocol. As others at the table gasped, her Majesty quietly tipped her tea into its saucer and drank with the beggar. Everything a child needed to know about manners, class, condescension, kindness and noblesse oblige was contained in that story.
Clearly the volumes had been assembled to entertain Victorian children during the stifling Sundays when they were trapped in airless, curtained rooms and couldn’t go outside to play. But what made these books absolute treasures for me was the faded blue inscription on the flyleaf of the first volume: "To little Nellie on her birthday, with love from Papa, 1896." My own father had died when I was four, and somehow it felt as if he were reaching through time with this priceless gift of knowledge, poetry, understanding and entertainment. I spent hours holding the volume to my chest and wondering if little Nellie was still alive (though very old, of course), and if I could find her and have her tell me more about her Papa.
Playwright Jeffrey Neuman has captured some of the mystery and magic of used books in his ten-minute Marginalia in Bite Size, a collection of five short plays curated by actor-director Meridith C. Grundei and Charlie Miller of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ Off-Center, now playing at BookBar. Marginalia is a conversation between the manager of a used-book store and a customer who, inexplicably, is seated at a table calmly writing in the books. On the night I attended, Regan Linton played the customer, sharp-tongued and possibly homeless, while Emma Messenger was the aggrieved manager who’s eventually drawn into her customer’s reasoning (the two actors alternate in the roles). The play communicates a sense of wonder about the connection between writer and reader, and between a current reader and those unknown souls from other times and places who perused the book before her.
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The funniest and sharpest play of the evening is Edith Weiss’s Holy Couch, in which a married couple (Matthew Schneck and Diana Dresser) attempt to deal with an image of Jesus Christ that has appeared on a sofa cushion. Outside the Room, a take on Kafka’s Metamorphosis, is icy and abstract and performed with great precision; it’s created by Theatre Artibus and Grapefruit Lab and conceived by Larry Mitchell. In Sean Michael Cummings’s Toxoplasmosis (or) High Strangeness, two customers in a veterinarian’s waiting room find themselves reading the same Berenstain Bears children’s book, discovering that both have cats named Spooky.
Finally, there’s A Pocket Full of Dandelions, a kind of cross between a play and a two-person slam poem by Kristen Adele Calhoun and Theo E.J. Wilson, about imprisonment, revolution and freedom.
The plays repeat over the course of the evening, and the audience is divided into groups — each group getting a different color pin — and led from room to room in the warm, book-lined venue, so that everyone has a chance to see every play. There are two breaks for wine and tapas at the bar.
As I watched Holy Couch, I could hear clear, rippling piano music by Chopin. It wasn’t part of the play, and no one seemed to know where it was coming from. Grundei and Miller’s intention for Bite Size is to foster community, and in a sense the way sound bled from room to room was part of the charm of the evening: It created connection among these very different works and within the audience. Judging from the laughter, warmth and conversation that percolated through the entire evening, I’d say the producers have more than reached their goal.