Backstage: Underneath the Lintel

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(Host) A one-person play currently being performed at Burlington’s Flynnspace uses storytelling as a vehicle for self-discovery.

VPR’s Neal Charnoff goes “Backstage” with the Vermont Stage Company.

(Charnoff) Glen Berger’s play “Underneath the Lintel” takes place in a theater space in an undisclosed location. An eccentric Dutch librarian has rented the space so that he may tell his story, which begins with his innocuous discovery of an overdue book.

(Librarian) “One morning, in 1986, one fine and miserable and typical morning, nothing to give an inkling of what was to come, I found this book in the pile. We’ll label it ‘evidence number one.’ It is a Baedeker’s travel guide, in deplorable condition. Well, I was just about to give the little card my stamp with the old stamper when my eyes suddenly sprang out of my head and rolled on the floor and under the table. And why? Because I saw that this book was checked out in 1873 and no, no, never returned – till it was returned. Do you understand? That’s 113 years overdue!”

(Charnoff) The librarian becomes obsessed with finding out who has returned a book 113 years late. The travel guide contains some clues: an unredeemed train ticket to London, a tram ticket to Germany. The librarian becomes a detective, as each clue becomes more fantastic than the last. He begins to believe that not only is the person who returned the book still alive, but has been for centuries. Ultimately, the clues lead the librarian to the myth of the Wandering Jew.

(Librarian) “As the story goes, and it’s been going for centuries, there once was a cobbler, a Jew, kept to himself, never married, stayed out of trouble, living in Judea around 36 Anno Domini. Although no one in the whole entire world knew it was 36 Anno Domini, not knowing there was a dominus in their midst to make it Anno Domini. And can you blame them? Would you recognize a miracle if you saw one? What if you think, ‘I’ll never see a miracle.’ Or what if you think, ‘Well at least I’m sure I haven’t seen one yet.’ What if you’re wrong?”

(Charnoff) According to director Jim Gaylord, most one-person shows fall into two categories. There is the historical drama, where a figure like Harry Truman or Emily Dickenson is brought to life. Another is the performer tour-de-force; think Lily Tomlin or John Leguizamo.

But Gaylord says that “Underneath the Lintel” is really about storytelling, and its effect on the storyteller, and the audience. Gaylord adds that the title is itself a metaphor for the changes and decisions one must make along life’s journey.

(Gaylord) “The definition of lintel, it is the top of a doorframe. And so when one stands underneath the lintel you essentially stand on the threshold between one space and another as you’re going through a door. And in the larger sense that’s truly the meaning of this piece, because key events in several of the storylines of the piece take place as a person is standing underneath the lintel, or standing on the threshold of one world to another. And once they step into that new world, their world is never the same again.”

(Charnoff) The librarian is played by Vermont Stage artistic director Mark Nash. He says that because his character speaks directly to the audience, he will depend on them to guide him through each performance.

(Nash) “A big piece of acting is reacting to another actor on stage. And when you don’t have that you’ve got to generate it all yourself. In the case of this show, I will have someone to interact with, but it’s the audience. So I won’t really have my other actors until the audience shows up, and I get to play off of them.”

(Charnoff) Music provided by the playwright adds flavor to the play’s indeterminate place and time. Mark Nash says that “Underneath the Lintel” fulfills the expectations of the play-going audience, and those who just want to hear a good story.

(Nash) “I hope that it’s a great piece of entertainment, but I also think that people are going to come away feeling changed by what they’ve seen.”

(Charnoff) For VPR Backstage, I’m Neal Charnoff.

“Underneath the Lintel” runs through March 28 at the Flynnspace in Burlington.

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