—Nathan Schmidt. Photo by Emily Cooper.
UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL
Nathan Schmidt is fabulous in Underneath the Lintel. As a fussy, obsessive Dutch librarian who pursues the mystery of a 113-years-overdue library book across the globe, Schmidt gets just about everything right. He’s funny, compelling and entertaining while carrying all the tangled thematic weight of this complicated solo show.
The play is partly a shaggy dog story. The librarian carries out some impossible detective work in tracking down one clue after another about the identity and fate of the person who returned the book. A laundry ticket from 1913 takes him to London where, in a pair of trousers, he finds a tram ticket from 1912 that sends him to Bonn. Careful interpretations of eighteenth century account books, a love letter and other clues lead to trips to China, New York and Australia.
Ultimately, he discovers the story of a man in first-century Roman-occupied Palestine who stood in the doorway of his shop, underneath the lintel, and neglected to aid a condemned prisoner dragging a cross toward Golgotha. This man will become the Wandering Jew, cursed never to die, never to rest until the Second Coming. The librarian is certain the mysterious book-borrower whose trail he has been following is none other.
Director Paul F. Muir stages the show very effectively with Schmidt in constant motion around the tiny Pacific Theatre playing area. A trunk filled with random props, a projector showing grainy slides of the librarian’s travelogue, and a blackboard on which Schmidt cleverly compiles the librarian’s theories and evidence nicely flesh out the narrative with help from Rachel Peacock’s soundscape.
But what’s it all about? At first the Wandering Jew appears a test of the skeptical librarian’s faith. “If he existed, then God existed, too. I had accepted, but never believed anything in my life. Would I recognize a miracle if I saw one?” But soon he shifts from a theological to an existential hypothesis. The Wanderer, he gradually decides, doomed to an eternity of anonymity, had intentionally left all those clues precisely so his existence could be authenticated, as the librarian has just done. By the end he sees the figure as an existential rebel, crying out against his own doom and the absurdity of human mortality generally, “I WAS HERE!”
Rather than building to a stirring climax, this waving the banner of human resistance feels like a non sequitur, not quite comic but not quite convincing either. The philosophical underpinnings of the conclusion are awfully flimsy, not least because the almost cartoonish character of the librarian offers no real biographical basis for the train of logic he rides. Still, this curious journey is worth the ride, and with Schmidt as our conductor it’s always fun.