One man. One suitcase. A nearly empty stage.
And a whopper of a story to tell.
That’s the setup for Glen Berger’s oddly named, mesmerizingly plotted, single-actor play “Underneath the Lintel,” which Cinnabar Theater presents beginning this weekend. The production, directed by John Craven and featuring a performance by John Shillington (“Time Goes By,” “The Price”), is a re-mounting of the one staged at Sebastopol’s Main Stage West Theater in 2014. Berger’s labor of love debuted in 2001, and has since become one of the most oft-staged modern monodramas (theater speak for a one-person show) in the English language.
Glen Berger is best known as the playwright behind the infamous Broadway musical “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” with songs by Bono and The Edge of U2. Berger wrote of that experience in the bestselling book “Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History.” It is a bit ironic that the author of one of Broadway’s biggest, gaudiest failures was also responsible for an unassuming little script, possessed of a gentle power that springs from its own smallness, a play with a quiet popularity that just keeps going and going and going.
“I love this play, and of course, I love the Librarian,” says Shillington, hanging out backstage at Cinnabar while director Craven finishes up a production meeting with the show’s stage manager and various designers. The Librarian is the character Shillington plays. A shy, lonely, unadventurous Swedish fellow (with, perhaps, a previously unseen tendency toward obsessive compulsion), his curiosity is piqued when someone slips an overdue book through the night drop at the library. The book turns out to be have been borrowed 113 years ago, and the accumulated fines are a small fortune. Initially just hoping to collect, the Librarian turns sleuth, heading out onto what becomes a globe-trotting search for whoever it was who checked out that book. It’s the kind of cosmic, mystery-fantasy that not only gets its narrative hooks into its audiences. The play has clearly also hooked Shillington. “When John and I did this in Sebastopol, four or five years ago,” he says, “I kept the idea in the back of my mind that I might need to do it again in the future. To see what it would mean to me later on in my life. That’s why I kept the suitcase after that run of the show. Just in case. I’ve had it in storage all this time.”
The suitcase. That, in a way, is the closest thing the Librarian has to a co-star in “Underneath the Lintel.” Filled with “scraps” of little artifacts, pieces of paper and other findings, the Librarian collects a mounting assemblage of what he calls “An impressive presentation of lovely evidences.” That’s the name of the “lecture” he plans to give when he arrives, at the start of the show, in a small rundown room he’s barely able to afford the rent on, where he will tell his audience exactly what he’s come to believe about the person who returned that book and sent him off on a life-changing mission.
His conclusion, made after producing and displaying all the “evidences” in the suitcase, is nothing short of astounding, challenging our understanding of time, life, and even (possibly) God.
“It’s so good,” grins Shillington, “watching as an audience absorbs the enormity of what their being told. As an actor, watching words have such an affect on people is just the greatest thing in the world.”
PLANNING TO GO?
What: “Underneath the Lintel,” by Glen Berger
When: Feb. 1- 17. Show times: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Where: Cinnabar Theater, 3333 N. Petaluma Blvd.
Admission: Tickets run $28-$30, and are available at the box office (while seats remain), online at CinnabarTheater.org, or by calling 763-8920 during standard daytime office hours.
Information: Get details about this show and Cinnabar Theater at CinnabarTheater.org.