In the name of efficiency and progress in today’s digital world, we’ve all but lost the library due date ink stamper, innocuous an object as it is. And who cares, really? Date checked-out, date checked-in… that’s all there is to it.
Or is it?
When you think about it, the ink stamper contains all of history, every date that’s ever been or will be (for several thousand years, at least), right there in your hand. The stamper is like a passport, sending books off on journeys, providing a record of where a book has been, and when.
In Underneath the Lintel — the inaugural production by Boulder’s TreeLine Theater — the stamper creates a gateway to the world for an uptight Dutch librarian who has never left his town of Hoofddorp. After he discovers a travel guide has been returned 113 years past its due date, the Librarian sets off on a journey across the world, across the ages, to find who anonymously returned the book.
“It’s beautifully written,” says TreeLine founder and artistic director Steve Grad. “It has some very powerful themes in it; themes of the necessity for human contact, for intimacy, to leave a legacy behind after we’re gone. It raises the question of the existence of God. And it’s funny. I won’t do anything that doesn’t have some humor in it.”
Grad plays the Librarian in the monodrama. It was roles like that of the older Librarian that Grad found lacking in Boulder’s traditional theater scene (“I was looking for things that would have a nice role for a man my age — a young fella, you know?”). A lifelong actor who cofounded Boulder’s long-lost Theater 13 company, Grad figured the best way to get the roles he wanted was to start a theater group. TreeLine formed this year with funding from the Boulder County Arts Alliance.
For the company’s debut production, Grad asked his friend Amy Kaplan, a veteran writer and video editor, if she’d be interested in directing Underneath the Lintel. The two had worked together on several productions from VIVA, the intergenerational theater troupe of Boulder’s Society for Creative Aging. They worked together on 2016’s The Outgoing Tide, where Grad played a man struggling to maintain control in the throes of Alzheimer’s, and last year’s Parlor Tricks, where Grad played a husband caught between his wife and mistress at the hairdresser.
“Steve asked me to direct, and I like him, and I like his sense of humor and that he doesn’t take himself terribly seriously as either a man or an actor,” Kaplan half-jokes.
“I love the humor,” she says of Underneath the Lintel, “because it’s based in character. It’s not lines that were written to be funny. The humor is coming out of this [character’s] personality.”
Personable and gracious, someone who has traditionally spent his winters in Mexico and teaches English through Boulder’s Intercambio organization, Grad’s own personality is quite different from that of the deeply fearful, misanthropic character he plays in Lintel. Yet Grad effortlessly taps into the Librarian’s curmudgeonly arrogance, reveling the deep insecurity that causes it. Alone on stage, Grad easily fills the space and time with the Librarian’s bumpy journey toward self-actualization.
He and Kaplan have trimmed the play slightly to run at around 80 minutes, giving Grad the space he needs to develop the plot without making the production a marathon for its sole actor. The result is a runtime that’s also pleasing to the audience.
“What makes any artistic experience valuable is the aesthetic value of it,” Grad says. “Whatever the themes are. I have a degree in Russian literature, believe it or not, and I was thinking about Tolstoy, who later in life had a religious conversion and began writing religious texts. Nobody reads them now, but people are still reading War and Peace, they’re still reading Anna Karenina, they’re still reading his short stories because they have the same message but they’re said with art. They’re said aesthetically.”
Lintel is a gentle reminder that we are each solitary, ordinary people on one unified, extraordinary journey. While the play touches on the existence of God, it doesn’t ask us to believe in God. Rather, it asks us to believe in something — anything — in the face of the reality that we are all tiny specs living on a tiny rock hurtling through an infinite universe. It asks us to believe in ourselves, and, most importantly, to believe in one another.
“Still, we’ll proceed,” the Librarian says over and again throughout the play, a reminder that he must keep going when it seems there’s nowhere to go. It’s a reminder to the audience as well.
On the Bill: Underneath The Lintel — presented by TreeLine Theater. Friday, Nov. 30-Sunday, Dec. 9. Dairy Arts Center, Carsen Theater, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder. Tickets are $20, $15 for seniors.