Tuesday, February 26, 2013

"Underneath the Lintel"' AFTERWORD by playwright Glen Berger

Playwright Glen Berger

A spot of grocery shopping, a few diapers changed, dinner, a chat on the phone, a shower, a shave, and an arduous mission retrieving a small round dog toy from under the couch—that has been my day today, and all in all, little to write home about, certainly nothing demanding deep consideration, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing strange. That is, if it weren’t for three incontrovertible Facts: 1) The universe contains well over 500,000,000,000 galaxies, with each galaxy containing over 1,000,000,000,000 stars, of which, our vast, blazing and life-bestowing sun…is one. 2) The Earth is 4,600,000,000 years old, in which time, from the Pre-Cambrian Era to the Present—a dizzying, terrifying number of inhabitants—amoebas and trilobites, dust mites and Neanderthals—have all struggled to live from one hour to the next. (Indeed, more living creatures are in my stomach (and yours) at this moment than the total number of human beings that have ever existed.) 3) I will die. I will be dead in sixty years, though it’s entirely conceivable that I’ll be dead before the week is out.

And suddenly all the props holding up my warm and secure little existence are kicked away and used for kindling. The imagination is taxed to exhaustion and left numb and agape when it even begins to fathom the implications of these Facts. They beggar the most breathless hyperbole. Three simple Facts, three confirmed and undeniable Facts—the immensity of the universe, the incomprehensibly vast history of the Earth, and our inescapable mortality—loom over all of us like three paisley mastodons. When I shine these three Facts upon any moment in my life, suddenly nothing, absolutely nothing, isn’t strange, bewildering, and out of all whooping. These Facts turn every memorable or trivial or utterly forgettable moment of my existence—shopping, eating trout with spouse, lying prostrate retrieving dog toy—into the Apotheosis of the Comic and Tragic, the Inconsequential and Crucial, the Banal and Profound. These Facts loom so large, in fact, that they are rather easily ignored. Three paisley mastodons get up with us in the morning and sleep with us at night, but, for the most part, they’re very quiet pachyderms, and consequently, amazingly, they blur into the unimportant background, even though one day, with trumpeting bellows, they will trample me into oblivion. Time and again I explain to myself that these Facts are interesting, profound even, but not pertinent to my daily life. NO. In truth, everything else is but shadow compared to these Facts. They are the trump cards to all the ordinary cards I hold in my hand and call “my life.”

I write plays to help me keep these Three Facts in the front of my head. In other words, I write to try to keep myself engaged with the Bewildering and Infinite. But why did I write Underneath the Lintel in particular?

James Ridge in Milwaukee Chamber
photo by Kevin Pauly

All my plays are first inspired by music, and Underneath the Lintel was inspired particularly by certain klezmer / yiddish music from the 1920's (and earlier). The "jaunty melancholy, " the "dancing-despite-it-all" quality it contained, the defiance even—a certain "finding-joy-despite-all-the-evidence-to-the-contrary” quality in the music—compelled me to try to express it as a play.

In 1976, in Laetoli, in Tanzania, some members of Mary Leakey’s archaeology team were throwing chunks of dried elephant dung at each other,(as archaeologists are wont to do in their free time). When one of the paleontologists dived to the ground to avoid being pelted by dung, he noticed fossilized footprints of an animal, left in hardened volcanic ash from 3.8 million years ago. After two years of excavation, all number of animal prints were discovered, including, unexpectedly, unmistakably, the footprints of hominids—our ancient australopithecine ancestors. The fact that these prints were preserved—prints by an anonymous ancestor going about a no doubt every-day activity—testifies to me of the great Conundrum of History: What is saved, and what is lost?

There used to be a sequence in Underneath the Lintel, which I considered and then excised before the New York production. After the Librarian points out the words on the moth’s wing, and calls them a “ghostly vestige,” he mentions how “vestige” comes from the Latin word “vestigium”, meaning “footprint.” The Librarian then alludes to the footprints left by our ancestors in Laetoli, and (unbeknownst to the Librarian), we see a slide of those Laetoli footprints, and then a subsequent 15-second slideshow depicting the subsequent 4-million year history of Humankind, full of our best and worst, and ending with a picture of a footprint left by the first man on the moon.

I loved the idea, and it looked really horrible when we actually tried to execute it, and then I hated the idea. So the sequence is out. But hopefully the idea can still be found in the play. “Still, we’ll proceed,” the Librarian says over and again, somehow we’ll proceed, we haven’t a choice, and perhaps such a sentiment has somehow driven the evolution of humanity itself, in tiny steps. Oh yes, we’ll often go sideways or backwards, but continue we will, and perhaps “there is joy, too, in that.”

James Ridge in Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's
UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL; photo by Kevin Pauly

What, after all, do we do with the fact that suffering has dogged humanity (and certainly not just humanity, but the 3 billion-odd species that have populated this planet) every step of the way? Calculated cruelty as well as utterly random events--10 million die in the senselessness of WWI and a woman is struck down by a frozen block of urine. The fact that we die is a great fat conundrum, and it will continue to be a conundrum for me until...well until I die. What does my little life mean when set against the huge backdrop of human history? And what's human history set against the ridiculously unimaginable backdrop of the history of the universe? (At the Rose Planetarium in New York, there’s a walk representing the history of the observable universe and at the end of the walk, there's a single hair, representing the 50,000 years of human existence). And what do we do with the fact that because we only live our lives once, a single event, or a single mistake, can send our lives into a wholly unanticipated and undesired direction?

So it was while I was listening to the klezmer music, and trying to think of a dramatic structure that would allow me to encompass a lot of history (in lieu of the Three Facts), that I remembered the story of the Wandering Jew. Now I was quite aware that the myth of the Wandering Jew was originally an anti-Semitic tale, but the myth had taken on more complex meanings in its 700-odd year history, and I felt, besides, that an artist can always appropriate myths for his own ends. (I would later discover that a film made in Yiddish by Jews in the early 30’s called "The Wandering Jew" was made to warn a generally ignorant world of the growing Nazi menace. In the film, the Wandering Jew is depicted as a noble figure, bearing witness to history. I’ve received letters calling Underneath the Lintel anti-Semitic. That said, I’ve also received letters calling the play too “pro-Zionist,” and also “anti-Christian,” for the portrayal of a cruel Christ, I suppose. So go figure.)

The first performance of Underneath the Lintel in New York was scheduled for September 18, 2001. The Soho Playhouse, being in Soho, was inaccessible for a week after the 11th,, but we invited the neighborhood to see the show on the 19th. Yet although the events of 9/11 were singular and tragic, they were not, unfortunately, so out of the ordinary, when one considers the whole of history. On September 11, people were murdered out of anger and ignorance, victims who didn’t want to die, and weren’t expecting to die just then. Considered in this light, such events occur on larger and smaller scales every day, and have been occurring every day for thousands of years.

James Ridge in Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's
UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL; photo by Kevin Pauly

In a sense, despite the Wandering Jew’s seemingly unique situation, his predicament is the predicament of all humanity--he made a mistake, a single mistake 'underneath the lintel', when he put fear and self-interest ahead of compassion. Every one does it all the time. And he was forced to live with that mistake the rest of his days. Did the punishment fit the crime? No. But that's often true of punishments and crimes. And even though he was condemned to live for a near-eternity, the fact that he is not allowed to be anything more than a myth (by not being allowed to communicate his existence to his fellow man) puts him in practically the same spot as the rest of humanity; namely, that his life means seemingly next-to-nothing in the great scope of history.

However, he is a human being, and he isn't going to give up so easily. Humanity inevitably finds the strength, despite our mistakes and tragedies, to rebuild, to persevere, to proceed, until death does us in. Graffiti throughout the ages (in a Lascaux cave or on a New York subway train) testify to the fundamental human need to affirm our own existence to each other and to the Heavens. For our Librarian, the scraps left behind by the alleged Wandering Jew prove that he will never stop seeking “a way around" God's edict. And if the Wandering Jew has been condemned by God to witness thousands of years of human suffering, then almost in defiance, he will seek out all that is good and worthy and beautiful, and if he is forced to "walk", he'll do God one better and Dance. Which of course, God no doubt wanted all along. This is the defiance, sadness, and hope I found expressed so fully in the Klezmer music I had been listening to.

The Librarian made a mistake underneath the lintel—sending the one girl he ever loved away. His ensuing, long-sublimated spiritual crisis feeds his determination to find meaning in the clues he uncovers.

But my point isn't that we should all believe in the Wandering Jew, or even in God, for that matter. Rather, anything at all—for the Librarian it was an impossibly overdue book—can be an invitation to the miraculous. And also this: That in the face of overwhelming existential bewilderment and terrible suffering, to respond with a little defiant dancing (in all its myriad forms) is a very human and very wondrous thing.

James Ridge in Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's
UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL; photo by Kevin Pauly

On one end of a spectrum is Coincidence, on the other end Profound Serendipity. The only difference between the two is how much meaning we choose to ascribe to a particular event. I’m still working out where on the spectrum I should put the following:

A few months back, I was paging through an Encyclopedia of Philosophy when I came across the word "Sublime," which is defined as "the presence of transcendent vastness or greatness…While in one aspect, it is apprehended and grasped as a whole, it is felt as transcending our normal standards of measurement…It involves a certain baffling of our faculty with feeling of limitation akin to awe and veneration; as well as a stimulation of our abilities and elevation of the self in sympathy with its object."

The word "Sublime" comes from "sub" (under) + limen (which, like “limit”, is a word derived originally from…"lintel").

Though we rarely recognize the place, underneath the lintel is where we stand every day, every moment, of our life.

Afterword by UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL playwright Glen Berger.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


James Ridge returns to MCT as The Librarian in UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL. This is the third one-man show he has been in with Michael Wright as director - the first two were DICKENS IN AMERICA and A NIGHT IN NOVEMBER. He is in his 16th season as a member of the acting company at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin.  We asked Jim to share some thoughts about this one-man show...

James Ridge
Tell us a bit about The Librarian. 
Glen Berger's protagonist in Underneath the Lintel is an unmarried lifer in the tiny bureaucracy of a library in Hoofdorrp, the Netherlands.  He has no name in the play, he is known only as "the librarian", like so many of us who seem to define ourselves by what we do; and his little life is well-contained and well-defined with few expectations and fewer surprises.  He is a man of the mind.  Surrounded by books and the wealth of knowledge they offer, he has an uncanny grasp of the details of history, but he is a man of little personal experience of the world.  He is, seemingly, the least likely person to be drawn into a wild goose chase around the world. 

Why do you think the librarian decided to tell his story this way? Why did he choose to rent a theater, rather than write a book? 
I believe that the librarian naively thinks that if he puts up a few posters announcing an "impressive presentation" he will have a standing-room-only opportunity to share the details of his all consuming search and the compelling conclusions he has drawn.  He wants to present the facts in person, face to face with the world, and immediately.  The most important reason for presenting his "lovely eveydences" in public may be more subliminal. His search has brought about great change in this solitary man---he has awakened the artist inside of himself:  he now feels that he has no choice but to make something out of his experiences, to create.

Talk about the benefits and challenges of being in a one-man show. Also, this is the third one-man show you’ve been in under the direction of Michael Wright. Is it helpful working with the same director, especially on this kind of play? 
James Ridge in MCT's
One of the toughest challenges for me of working on a one-person play is to quiet the voice in my head screaming out that I am in no way interesting enough to hold anyone's attention (including my own boys') for 90 minutes.  Or more than 90 minutes when you consider a whole rehearsal period---poor Michael Wright (director) and Judy Martel (stage manager). But, as so often happens in life, that greatest challenge, when embraced, becomes the greatest benefit.  After so many years of working on plays, I have discovered that I can turn the pressure I feel to be "interesting" into a process of seeking out specificity.  Trust the play, trust the words and ideas, and trust my imagination to create a specific, detailed life to share with the audience.  Here is where working with Michael over the years pays off:  I trust his wisdom, I trust his attention to detail, I trust his great compassion and love for humanity.  And we have great trust in other's creative process---we don't know how it will work out, but we know that it will. That is a joy-full thing.

What are some of your favorite moments in theatre that made you who you are today? 
All well-told stories are compelling to me, so any time I experience a play in which what my eyes are telling my brain meshes with what my ears are telling my brain--I feel more fully human, I feel alive and blessed.

Thank you Jim! We can't wait for UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL (Feb. 20 - March 17)!

Monday, February 11, 2013

A Long and Winding Road

by C. Michael Wright, UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL Director and MCT Producing Artistic Director

People often ask me how I choose the scripts we produce. Truth be told, it can often be a rather lengthy and involved process. Take GlenBerger’s UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL as a case in point.
C. Michael Wright

It was way back in 2001, when I happily stumbled upon the original Off-Broadway production. I was completely captivated by the story of a lonely Dutch librarian who rents a theatre for the night to share the tale of his funny and mystical pursuit of a delinquent borrower. To me, his journey was quite clearly about trying to find sense in a chaotic world full of seemingly random occurrences. It touched me in a very deep way. (Although the script had been written in 1999, I saw it right after the events of 9/11, at a time when we were all desperately searching for some meaning.)

When I returned to Milwaukee, I was determined to procure a copy of the script. I remember tracking down the playwright’s agent and receiving the unpublished manuscript. Just like the librarian in the story, I found myself a tad obsessed. I really studied it, attempting to peel away every delicate layer of Berger’s enigmatic script. Then I added it to my crowded book shelf.

A few years later, the published version crossed my desk and I reread the script with the same excited, inquisitive vigor. Once again, I placed it on the book shelf, but now it had worked its way into my “To Do (Someday)” pile.

As any theatre artist will tell you, “It’s all about the timing.”

I couldn’t tell you exactly when I made the decision to finally produce this exquisite little jewel of a play, but one day I just knew I needed to direct it – and I knew I needed to direct my good friend, Jim Ridge, in it.

So I pulled the script back off my shelf and was surprised to find a handwritten postcard tucked inside. I’d totally forgotten that Jim Van Ess, a loyal theatre patron (and a retired Dutch librarian himself) had sent me the published version a number of years before, telling me how he had just happened upon the Off-Broadway production and how he had been completely fascinated by it. He wrote: “I hope someday this vehicle will find its way to Milwaukee.”

I took that as a sign!

I owe many thanks to Jim for echoing my fondness for this wonderful play and for strengthening my resolve to produce it!

I also owe a debt of gratitude to the other Jim for being such a courageous explorer as an actor!

How I do love the tenacity of human beings! Just when things seem the most futile, we can turn a corner and discover new surprises and untapped joys – and the strength to keep on, continuing to explore life’s mysteries…

That’s a story worth telling at any time!