Who hasn’t felt the tug of adventure, the longing to escape the normal drone of everyday life? Who hasn’t, in the face of what Kant called the “numerical sublime” (the number of stars, the size of the universe, the number of lives lived and now gone) looked for meaning and purpose? In the words of Glen Berger’s protagonist in Underneath the Lintel, who hasn’t wanted “to prove one life, and to justify another”? If this sort of soul-searching, existential crisis is up your alley (as it is for this former philosophy major) then Theater Latté Da’s Underneath the Lintel will keep your riveted. If, however, this is a little esoteric for your Friday night, then look elsewhere. I suspect people will fall into pretty clearly delineated camps on this one!
The story itself is charming in its simplicity. While working the book check-in, an aging Dutch librarian (Sally Wingert) becomes obsessed with trying to find out about a patron who has turned in a book that has been overdue for 113 years. What follows is a jet-setting adventure, with small clues and scraps of evidence, that culminates in...perhaps proof? Perhaps meaning? Both concepts seem devastatingly transitory for both our protagonist and her audience. Underlying her search is the kernel of hope that the person who turned the book in is the same person who checked it out 113 years ago.
Though Underneath the Lintel was originally conceived as a one-person play by Glen Berger, Theater Latté Da and Berger invited Frank London to add music (and live musicians) to the tale. This novel idea came about because, “In the afterword Glen writes about how music inspired his writing of the play, although the final script included just a few snippets of pre-existing songs.” (Letter from the Director).
While the music added a wonderful flare to the play, and helped set the tone for the different places and times the wandering Library Patron may have made himself known, it wasn’t entirely successful. The concreteness of the music undercut what is most interesting about the play itself: is the Librarian mad, or is she onto something? Are her leaps of logic sound (if too fast or complicated for the audience to fully grasp) or has she followed one too many red herrings of her own devising? It is this tension that underwrites the whole play. The musicians (Dan Chouinard played the piano, accordion, and Chaplin’s organ and Natalie Nowytski sang as well as played the bass) while truly excellent, seem to take away from Wingert’s virtuoso performance. Sometimes, a dish is already properly seasoned and doesn’t need anything else. I suspect this is the case with Underneath the Lintel.
A slow drip into mania:
Sally Wingert is a veteran of the Minneapolis stage, and one of the only actresses I can think of here that would would be entrusted to headline such a complicated one-person show. She is charming, laughable, and pitious as The Librarian. She slowly dissolves into either mania, or else lucidity, as the play progresses. The descent is almost imperceptible, but still showcases all the verve that bring people back time and time again for Wingert’s performances. Wingert has the ability to make even shallow or uninteresting characters become nuanced, so it’s wonderful to see her in such a compelling role. Her contagious enthusiasm wills you to go along for the ride through her scraps of evidence, even as you find yourself starting to wonder just how reliable a narrator The Librarian actually is. Did I just miss a few lines (did I not catch that jump?) or is she no longer making sense?
Theater Latté Da utilizes its full space to tell this tale, making any seat a prime place to watch the action. Boxes, traveling trunks, and suitcases fill the back half of the stage, and The Librarian carries a large assortment of them on her person. Unpacking is a central theme of the blocking and stage design--both its metaphorical and literal meanings.
Rationally, it makes sense that smaller pieces of information and their associated conclusions can be folded up and neatly nested together. That way, they are ready to deploy as a larger concept, or to be unfolded, looked at, and explained in detail when necessary. The proof of an argument is often boxed up, its meaning tied to the ordering and arrangement of the smaller pieces and the way in which they are unpacked. In this play, that is precisely how The Librarian treats her suitcases and boxes, and as she gets more and more excited she stops unpacking carefully and methodically. In this chaos, the strings of logic tying the proof together starts to breakdown, probably pointing to the laughable notion that there was cause and effect anywhere.
In the spirit of the play itself, whose protagonist’s connections and leaps in logic might not be entirely successful, the collaboration between Underneath the Lintel and the added music is not perfect, and perhaps prone to flights of fancy. That doesn’t mean, however, that it wasn’t worth the experimentation nor that it wasn’t a compelling play. The thought to make the play more immediate, more culturally resonant with music was an interesting idea, and clearly worth exploring. I, for one, am glad that Latté Da took the chance! You have until July 1 to see this version of Underneath the Lintel!