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Review: PURE Theatre's 'Underneath the Lintel' is just the kind of magical play we need right now

The sacred and the mundane

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First, a word about the lintel. As explained by the sole character in the aching, layered Underneath the Lintel that is now on offer at PURE Theatre, it’s simply the top crossbeam of a doorframe. But in playwright Glen Berger’s adroit, deep-reaching hands, it’s not just any doorframe. It’s the one under which a cross-encumbered Jesus collapsed during his final march to Golgotha.

The lintel serves as phenomenal framework for a certain threshold moment most of us mere mortals one day confront, if we dare. That’s the one in which we can choose to rise to the fraught and fearsome occasion called life, sacrificing comfort and even safety for something more meaningful, if not transcendent. Or we can instead opt to feebly retreat back into our workaday world to pass our earthly days punching a clock, pushing papers, and perhaps jockeying for that coveted promotion. It’s the moment that separates the functionaries from the philosophers.

So that’s the conundrum that was thrust upon an officious, minutiae-mired librarian from Hoofddorp, Holland, in this masterful one-man show, which at PURE is directed by Sharon Graci and stars Rodney Lee Rogers. On an intentionally pieced-together set that reads like a patchwork of stray parts laying around backstage, a nameless bibliodrone politely parcels out his incredible, altogether implausible story.

He does so in a style more suited to a PowerPoint presentation, with uninspired slides and scribbled chalkboard notations. In this perfunctory format, he details the series of curiouser and curiouser events that ejected him from his daily duties checking in the books that arrived through the overnight slot. Offering up “scraps” of evidence from a suitcase, he unfolds the story of his forced retirement — and glimpses of the mysticism driving his terminable offenses.

When a dog-eared copy of a Baedeker travel guide lands in his lap one morning — one that is 113 years overdue — the career time-stamper finds himself chasing clues about a book borrower identified simply as “A.” This mystery, and the audacity of the borrower’s overdue status, eggs him to dig deeper and deeper still. If you’ve ever spent time with a librarian, you’ll know that our wonkish, bookish new friend is uniquely suited to take on the research requisite for the task at hand. He even cops to us that he has been known at cocktail parties to wax rhapsodic about the Dewey Decimal System.

So, with a mind for arcane detail, he scurries down the mother of all rabbit holes, at first sleuthing out a laundry ticket to London, which leads to another clue, and on and on. What he gleans from his travels and noodling is that the man he so obsessively pursues is none other than the Wandering Jew, the mythical immortal man whose lapse of compassion underneath a lintel with a struggling savior has condemned him to this mortal plane until the second coming (which, by the way, has yet to come).

As the librarian abandons his beloved library post to chase the trail that he increasingly believes belongs to the Wandering Jew, the clues both crystallize and crumble. Is the graffiti “I was here,” which he spots throughout the globe in every language, the work of a centuries-old cobbler sending messages to the likes of the librarian to piece together his path — or simply the scrawls of a global collection of Kilroys? Is the librarian getting his facts wrong? There is, of course, no way to get to the truth of the matter. It is a matter of faith, after all.

So it follows that the actor charged with this role has some serious work cut out for him. It is essential that we take to this off-kilter Dutchman. He at once embodies the sacred and the mundane, the tedious and the tragic. Rogers does so to mesmerizing effect. He brandishes an office supply staple of a date-stamp as if it were the Holy Grail, while making a compelling case that it bears similar metaphysical weight. He waves an evidentiary pair of musty pants as if they were the shroud of Turin (you know, the one with Christ’s face in it). His librarian is alternately finicky and feverish, benign and momentous, nimbly navigating the fine line that exists between soul-searching — and keeping our day job.

And we do champion this oddball on an unfettered search for a B-list character in the life and times of Christ, thanks to the resonant efforts of Rogers. Yes, this is way-deep territory. But then again, I think it’s safe to say that these days we are all uncertainly wavering in that doorway, mulling whether to slink back inside or to protect the persecuted, whether to crawl up into our comfort zone, or demand that there is a deeper, higher meaning to the stuff of our everyday lives. I for one think it’s worth staring down for a short spell at PURE. Don’t worry: You can still punch the clock tomorrow.


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