We'll proceed

One-man play, 'Underneath the Lintel,' now open on Perseverance Second Stage

Posted: Friday, February 20, 2009

Individuals intrigued by man's never-ending search for meaning and the spiritual journey he undertakes in the process should stop by Perseverance Theatre's Second Stage to see "Underneath the Lintel," which opened Thursday and closes March 1. Written by Glen Berger, this one-man play is directed by Anni Stokes and performed by Ben Brown.

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David J. Sheakley / Juneau Empire
David J. Sheakley / Juneau Empire

"(It) is a spiritual journey," Stokes said of the play. "Mr. Berger explores three simple and undeniable facts about life in this play, that remind us to live more fully: the immensity of the universe, the vast history of the Earth and our inescapable mortality."

The play, first performed by Berger in 1999 at the Yale Summer Cabaret in New Haven, Conn., tells the story of a fact-loving Dutch librarian who discovers a 113-year overdue book - fittingly a Baedeker's travel guide. Then, believing the overdue-book-holder, A., is the Wandering Jew of Christian mythology, the Librarian decides to take on a worldwide journey to solve the mystery and collect the fine.

"But much more happens," Stokes said of the Librarian. "He comes to know, appreciate and express himself as a worthwhile human being."

Brown, who performed the one-man play "SantaLand Diaries" in December for Perseverance, said it is the Librarian's inherent reverence for knowledge that prompts the odyssey.

"He could have just said 'Fine, whatever, the person is probably dead,' but he doesn't," Brown said. "So it's that choice to rise to what seems like a small trivial challenge where he sets the events of the rest of the play in motion."

To help illustrate the Librarian's experiences, Stokes uses authentic Yiddish music, compiled by sound design and stage manager Nick Dehart, and slides, arranged by Corin Hughes-Skandis. For her, these components serve as additional personalities in the play.

"The '20s and '30s klezmer music have both a jaunty quality that is cheerful and a melancholy that is pensive and calming," Stokes said. "The slides and the hand-created artifacts in the play seem almost like characters. Some of the slides are of archivist quality, and the tagged evidences (artifacts) are handled with honor and respect. ... He treats them as if it would be an old person sitting on the edge of the table. They're almost breathing, they're so important to him."

Aside from his obvious respect for knowledge, the Librarian is "a bit of a fuss-budget" and a loner, Brown said.

"He has profound appreciation for beauty, not just physical beauty, but for spiritual beauty and the beauty of life," he added. "But he's not Kahlil Gibran or Wordsworth or some poetic figure. He doesn't express himself poetically, but I think he observes life kind of poetically. So there's some tension in the character."

Stokes said it was this internal friction and the contrasting elements of Berger's script that drew her to the play.

"I love Mr. Berger's writing," she said. "He juxtaposes comedy and tragedy, the crucial and seemingly unimportant, and the banal with the profound."

As he rambles off seemingly random facts, the Librarian finds it important to share tragedy - such as a woman dying instantly from an airplane's jettisoned frozen block of urine falling on her. He makes the unbelievable believable, Stokes said.

"The playwright suggests that we must proceed in spite of the difficult times," she added. "He invites us to dance in the face of our difficulties."

And actually, the Librarian says several times in the play, "We'll proceed."

"We must proceed, even if we're going sideways, backwards, we proceed and hopefully find joy in the movement," Stokes said.

And although his search for meaning seems driven by religion or some form of it, the Librarian's bigger question is simply "What is life?"

"Is it fate? Is it chance? Or is it something else?" Stokes asked. "We proceed without knowing."

In the end, Stokes and Brown hope the audience will go on a journey with them and come away with their own questions.

"In the waning months of winter, we are reminded to do what we can with what we have and to enjoy and celebrate the journey," Stokes said. "'Underneath the Lintel' is a common place we all stand each day, breathing, without knowing. Would you recognize a miracle if you saw one? Hopefully, the question plants the seed."

• Contact Neighbors editor Kim Andree at 523-2272 or kimberly.andree@juneauempire.com.

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