It's written into our national DNA, graven in our souls as our birthright: the pursuit of happiness. So it's no wonder, then, that stories casting a skeptical eye on single-minded pursuit — like Les Misérables, Don Quixote, or "The Beast in the Jungle" — seem foreign to us. Perhaps that's why the hero of Glen Berger's Underneath the Lintel is a Dutchman, for Berger is the co-author of the current Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark extravaganza on Broadway, and you can't get more American than that.
Produced and performed by Mark Sutch at CAST — and moving up to the Warehouse Performing Arts Center in Cornelius for its second weekend — Lintel could hardly be more different from the insanely expensive Spidey. Traveling extremely light, Lintel requires a single actor, a whiteboard, a projector table, and a beaten-up suitcase containing the scraps that make Berger's subtitle feasible — An Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences. Our presenter is a crazed embittered Librarian, who has been fired from his post at a small-town Dutch library because his obsession with solving an ancient mystery has taken over his life.
Exhibit #1 in the Librarian's presentation is an overdue Baedeker travel guide that turns up at his workplace — 123 years after it was checked out in 1873. As a conscientious employee, the Librarian wishes to track down the delinquent borrower and levy a hefty fine. Common sense tells him that the original borrower should be dead. But what if common sense doesn't apply here?
Mental stability isn't as strong in the Librarian as dogged tenacity. The one tool of his trade that the Librarian has salvaged from his job is his date stamper, capable of stamping an infinite number of due dates inside the back cover of a library book. So this stamper is now strung around the Librarian's neck like a talisman, because he believes that all of history is contained in those infinitely adjustable dates in his vest pocket. Crazy, no?
Another factor triggers the Librarian's impossible quest. He's never really been anywhere before. So when a 1913 laundry ticket inside the Baedeker points him to London, he goes. When a train ticket in the unclaimed pair of trousers proclaims Bonn as the owner's next destination, he follows. Besides, in both of these cities — and in many more to come — he can duck in for a fresh fix of his newly discovered favorite pastime: big, splashy, epic musicals. As long as it's Les Miz.
China, New York and Brisbane soon pile onto the Librarian's itinerary as his quarry quickly assumes legendary proportions and a grand biblical name borrowed from the Book of Esther. Driven past reason, the Librarian becomes akin to a mythical figure himself. Perhaps Berger would like us to be hearing echoes of the Flying Dutchman alongside Victor Hugo's eternally frustrated Javert.
Sutch allows us to see all the Librarian's fascinating, meaningful contradictions. Rage, bitterness and ruination give way smoothly to apostolic zeal and the self-absorbed bliss of a man who has discovered his purpose. There are times when Sutch's commitment to pacing ignites him into an overdrive that strains our vigilance as an audience, causing us to miss a detail or two of the Librarian's twisty mystery. It's a panicked pace that's altogether right for a person who would rather not slow down for fear of hearing the words coming out of his own mouth.
But the central ambiguity lingers with us after our impetuous presenter rushes out of the hall, still in the grip of his obsession. He may have found, in his mad pursuit, more happiness than we will ever know. Or he may have given away his entire life — and his soul — to reach the unreachable star.
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