BWW Review: Pushing the Existential Envelope: UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL at Theater Latte Da
This one character philosophical scavenger hunt of a play has been staged all over the US and Europe since it premiered in 2001. It follows a fictional Dutch librarian who tries to track down the patron who returned a book to the overnight slot 113 year late. Her starting clues include hand written marginalia in the book and a dry cleaning ticket used as a bookmark. That leads her to a pair of abandoned trousers in London. These furnish another hint, and so on....
Playwright Glen Berger-who has penned a long list of plays and TV adaptations for children-also has a rangy, philosophical bent, which he likes to marry to quotidian realities. He's also got a bent toward symbolism and metaphor, and a catchy way with language. So though this show is 85 intermissionless minutes of talk, it's entertaining.
In fact, at the top of the show, I feared the audience might need to turn it into a laugh fest, so loudly did some guffaw at the character antics of one of the Twin Cities' great ladies of the stage, Sally Wingert. In most productions, The Librarian has been played by a male actor. It was a fine thing to see that upended here with a woman well beyond her ingénue years commanding the stage and diving deep into the muck of human history in search of meaning. By the end, she'd dropped her affectations and emerged to embrace us all with emphatic insistence on the theater as a liminal space, a border zone, where we meet each other to contemplate the big questions of life.
As a librarian, of course, Berger's character has access to reference materials of all kinds. She's given to mini-lectures on a variety of topics, including the etymology of the play's title. "Lintel" is the top of a doorway, above the threshold. Both lintel and liminal come from the Latin for threshold, where two realities meet. Like sleeping and waking. Or the sea and the shore. Such spaces may be scary but are also famously potent and creative, where the standard rules of time and space may be shifting. Like the stage.
Director Peter Rothstein's production begins with a bang-literally. With lights up, and doors to the theater closed, the actor thumps on a door until a patron stands up and lets her in. She makes several entrances hauling in suitcases filled with the evidences she's collected to share with us. Talking to us all the while, she stays busy moving the few furnishings around-a chalk board, a projection screen, a table-to set up her lecture room. As the world of the play expands, so do her peregrinations: Wingert ranged out into the aisles and marked on the theater walls and did her best to make each one of us feel the force of direct address.
Theater Latté Da, which is dedicated to musical theater, has obtained permission to add enough background music that they feel justified in calling this production of UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL a 'play with music.' That seems a bit of a stretch to me, despite the prodigious talents of composer Frank London, Dan Chouinard on piano, accordion, and chaplain's organ, and singer Natalie Nowytski, who also plays bass. The latter two appear periodically behind a scrim above the librarian's head, performing melodies that are playing in her mind, or that situate us in the temporal and spiritual world of the play: the mythic realm of the Wandering Jew.
This play is a brainy adventure, plenty lively given the energy of this actor working full out. I found it fully engaging but it might not be for folks who tire of talk or who need pyrotechnics or big visuals or even conversation and human to human entanglements. More than a play with music, this is a play with ideas: an individual attempt to make meaning in the face of mortality.
UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL plays in Northeast Minneapolis through July 1.
Photo Credit: Dan Norman