Imagine a range of storytellers from lanky, slowly drawling Stuart McLean on one end to lanky, hectic Nathan Schmidt on the other. Frenzy — or joy — is where playwright Glen Berger attempts to take us in this Rosebud Theatre production of Underneath the Lintel in which obsessive-compulsive disorder is taken to an extreme that is sometimes funny, often quirky and for those who, like director Paul F. Muir, think that we are “either running toward God or railing against Him,” possibly inspirational.
Schmidt, referred to in the play as “Librarian,” portrays a fussy, Dutch library worker from Hoofddorp whose job it is to check books back in. Appalled at the audacity of a borrower who would return a book — Baedeker’s Travel Guide — 113 years overdue (and, worse, dumping it in the overnight bin even when the library was open), the Librarian is determined to find the culprit and collect what will be a sizeable fine.
The book, he discovers in the little pocket in the back (remember those?), was checked out by “A” but A took the book to London, as evidenced by a receipt issued by a Chinese laundry for the cleaning of a pair of trousers. Off he goes to London where the Librarian discovers the trousers, too tattered to withstand laundering, have never been claimed. Back to the Baedeker’s Travel Guide: in its pages is a 1912 tram ticket issued in Bonn, Germany. You guessed it: He’s off again and in Sherlock Holmesian fashion, he discovers in the transit records for March 1912 an incident report on a tram regarding a “smelly, dirty Jew and a mangy dog named Sabrina.”
The journey continues — China, New York, Australia, England again, Jerusalem, sort of. The Librarian puts the pieces together and out pops the story of the Wandering Jew (Tradescantia zebrina) or, if not the houseplant, then Ahasuerus (A?), the mythological Wandering Jew, forever doomed to travel the world. Leaping lizards have nothing on this Librarian’s ability to leap from one scrap of “evidence” to another. These carefully labelled and duly stored “evidences” are waved in our faces as he pursues the miscreant.
Underneath the Lintel is rich in offbeat ideas, my favourite being the “stamper” that the Librarian, in a fit of bravado, steals from the library upon his “forced retirement” from the library. The stamper is of the old-fashioned kind with the revolving numbers that contains not only all the dates there ever were or will be (by simply revolving the gears) but also, as the Librarian points out, the birthdates of everyone in the theatre. And the dates of our death. Now there’s something to ponder: the stamper as The Grim Reaper.
Schmidt addresses all of us as if this were a one-night, slide-illustrated lecture by the Librarian — no doubt to raise funds for all that travelling. Schmidt is indefatigable, and, as the Librarian closes in on the mystery, his agitation reaches dizzying heights.
What began as a strange, funny story about a strange, funny Librarian makes an abrupt turn and strives to go deep as the character comes to believe that if the Wandering Jew exists — and is still amongst us — then so does God and he is still amongst us. For believers, his discovery is a given; for non-believers, it’s just odd.
The play may not be the thing here but the performance, direction and production can’t be faulted. I came close to envying the Librarian’s eventual, excited, optimistic, “I am here.”
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Underneath the Lintel runs until Jan. 31 at Pacific Theatre. For details, call 604-731-5518 or go to pacifictheatre.org.