Nathan Schmidt as the Librarian in Underneath the Lintel
Underneath the Lintel
July 3 – August 24 at 5:00 pm Wednesdays to Saturdays
Rosebud Studio Stage
Listen to my review on CBC’s Calgary Eyeopener at http://www.cbc.ca/eyeopener/columnists/theatre/2013/07/22/jessica-goldman-underneath-the-lintel/
One of the greatest thrills a theatre critic can experience is witnessing an actor’s performance so exceptional that she is tossed- up about what to obsess over – the artist’s current performance or the excited expectation of seeing them again in another role. Of course this anticipation is a bated-breath minefield. Will the actor live up to the previous effort and will the second time around be as electrifying? Well, Nathan Schmidt, you most certainly did it again and then some.
I swore when I saw this talented actor’s supporting role in last summer’s production of My Name is Asher Lev at Rosebud Studio that I would do everything in my power to see him again. So when I learned that Schmidt would be starring in a one-man performance of the Drama Desk nominated Underneath the Lintel back out at Rosebud, I was in! Ninety minute drive from Calgary be damned! The reward far outdoes the effort. Schmidt, under the adroit direction of Paul F. Muir, tickles every theatrical nerve ending, turning in a sweet, quirky and superbly acted performance that far surpasses the script’s occasional failings.
Glen Berger’s 2001 play, Underneath the Lintel, introduces us to a nerdy and stiff Dutch librarian whose main pleasure in life is to levy fines for overdue books and whose only ambition is to be promoted to the library’s acquisitions department. That is until one day he encounters a book that is one hundred and thirteen years overdue. At first he thinks it must have been returned by the great-grandson of the original borrower, but he soon realizes that the truth is more of a mystery than he could have ever imagined. Curiosity unshackles him from his small myopic existence and he embarks on a global quest (wonderfully illustrated by Jerod Falman and Rachel Peacock’s low tech slide show and sound design) to find out who anonymously returned the book. Unsurprisingly, along the way, the Librarian learns as much about himself as he does the mystery person he’s looking for.
Well, perhaps mystery is too strong a word given that it is revealed in the play’s title and also very early in the show. Underneath the Lintel is a reference to the legend of the Wandering Jew. Not a biblical story, but instead an anti-Semitic medieval Christian myth, the story of the Wandering Jew has been used over the years as justification for Jewish persecution. The legend goes like this – A Jew was said to have mocked Christ on the way to the Crucifixion, a taunting that took place underneath the lintel or the stone awning of a cobbler’s shop. The Jew was then cursed by God to wander the earth anonymously until the Second Coming.
The Librarian knows the myth – doesn’t believe in it – in fact doesn’t believe in God at all. But as the clues keep pointing towards the possibility that it was the Wandering Jew who checked out and returned the book, the Librarian is forced to deal with some big questions. Was the Jew treated unfairly by God, what place does defiance have in a meaningful life and how do you make yourself known in such a vast, often unkind world? Weighty subjects to be sure, but ideas that are mostly given a humorous touch. Underneath the Lintel is a giggle along experience that allows and encourages us to laugh with and at the transforming Librarian as he works up to the decidedly serious climax of the show. Perhaps it’s this jarring and frenetic switch of tone that left the audience a little baffled at the conclusion. I overheard more than one “huh? I don’t get it” from people as the lights came up and I can only assume this was the reason for the enthusiastic but not roaring applause that Schmidt greatly deserved.
So yes, this is a show that has some narrative weak spots (I’ll add to the list the unnecessary and melodramatic inclusion of the Librarian’s girlfriend that ‘got away’ plotline). And yes, there is some frustration with an ending that doesn’t fully and effectively communicate what the playwright intended. But if you are willing to think and discuss after the curtain, much can be gleaned to bring great meaning back to this narrative. If not, there can be no denying the pleasure derived from simply sitting back and watching Schmidt do his stuff. Under his care, the Librarian is a physical and emotional wonder of quirks and mannerisms and cadence that turn an odd character into something quite loveable and a decent enough script into something quite magical in the moment. With Nathan Schmidt on stage, I’ll take every moment I can get.
For the occasional theatre goer – Don’t be put off by the serious themes and messages of this show. You will spend most of your time laughing and feeling great affection for the odd Librarian as he sets off on his quest. But prepare yourself for an ambiguous ending that doesn’t hand the moral of the story to you easily. Consider it a challenge to figure it out. SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – Can all be forgiven thanks to a tour de force performance? Maybe not. You’ll see the flaws in the writing and want to wish them away. But this will all become minor quibbles when you consider Schmidt’s talent. No doubt you too will be looking forward his next turn on the stage. SEE IT