Theater Review: Cinnabar’s ‘Underneath the Lintel’ a fascinating mystery

“Underneath the Lintel” is a surprising one-actor adventure about a historical cold case. Nothing in Glen Berger’s play feels like a typical solo performance. John Shillington’s Librarian (that’s how he’s identified) fairly vibrates with energetic curiosity, and his performance resonates all throughout the theater. His character frequently interacts with the audience, and begs for all cell phones to be turned off, as sudden noises affect his nerves.

Though structured as a lecture – The Librarian explain he’s rented the theater for one night, advertising the talk with posters he’s distributed all over town – the story he wants to share is far from boring. It begins with a mystery, triggered when a tattered book appeared in his library’s night deposit box, 113 years overdue. Ire at such blatant disrespect initiates the Librarian’s single-minded quest to find the culprit. He searches for clues, and uncovers just enough evidence to tease his imagination. Unable to ignore the itch to uncover the truth, The Librarian becomes reluctantly drawn into a globetrotting investigation.

Director John Craven brings out a strong, genuine performance by Shillington as the nervous academic, who can complain about everyday problems (like lunches stolen from the employee refrigerator) in the same breath as wondering about the existence of God. The Librarian is a bit petty and fussy at times (and might have been left among his books for too long), but he radiates a yearning for meaning.

Following a remarkable series of clues (what he calls “lovely evidences”), the Librarian pins them to a clothesline one by one, rather like the author Jack London used to do when researching. Joseph Elwick’s set design (a dingy, untidy rented theater) and Elizabeth Craven’s props (wrinkled tram tickets and worn trousers) all add to the play’s feeling of authenticity.

(Warning: There are some significant spoilers ahead. If you want to maintain this play’s sense of surprise, jump now to the final paragraph of this review).

As the Librarian’s story progresses, he begins to believe, against all logic, that the book was returned over a century late because it had been checked out in 1873 by a legendary immortal known as “A.” or colloquially as “The Wandering Jew.”

The legend of the Wandering Jew was solidified in a 1602 German pamphlet, originally designed as a cruel, racist commentary on an already marginalized community. As the legend goes, in a brief moment of unkindness, a cobbler named Ahasuerus (while standing underneath the lintel, the doorway, of his shop) refused to help Christ, who was struggling to reach Calvary for his crucifixion. As punishment, Ahasuerus was cursed to walk the Earth without rest, completely alone, until the Second Coming.

Through the years, the myth of the Wandering Jew has morphed into a kind of literary and artistic inspiration that rejects its own negative origins, transforming the myth into a sympathetic symbol of defiant hope. During the build-up to World War II, the story was referenced in a Yiddish film “Der Vanderner Yid” as well as in the Nazi propaganda film “Der Ewige Jude,” for utterly contradictory purposes. Oblivious to the controversy, Ahasuerus lives on in popular culture, continuing his eternal journey. Playwright Berger calls the myth an “invitation to the miraculous.”

“Underneath the Lintel” is a unique exploration of human beings’ headstrong insistence that we matter, even when faced with the transient cycle of life and death. The play questions the difference between passive acceptance and the active choice of belief. The script balances challenging philosophical questions with light-hearted humor. The Librarian jokes that his first experience attending the musical “Les Misérables” lived up to its name. He frequently rails against his arch nemesis, reference librarian Brody, whose worst offence appears to be a propensity to hand out chocolate as a consolation prize when someone has not gotten his or her way.

Above all else, “Underneath the Lintel” is a fascinating detective story that left this reviewer wondering if miracles really are possible. As the teller of that story, Shillington is phenomenal and his performance should not be missed.

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