Berger back at Center Stage with new play
By Deborah Moon Seldner
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Sometimes when playwright Glen Berger hears music, he can hear the play inside it.
"I just have to find the play," said Berger, whose play "Underneath the Lintel," which he "found" in klezmer music, opens at Portland Center Stage's Winningstad Theatre Sept. 27 with performances Tuesday-Sunday through Oct. 30.
"Underneath the Lintel" is the tale of a querulous librarian whose obsession with finding the person who had the gall to return a library book 113 years overdue wrenches him from the quagmire of his rule-bound life and sends him on a round-the-world journey of self discovery. Klezmer music is sprinkled throughout the final half of the play.
Though klezmer music had been the music Berger heard at every wedding and bar mitzvah he attended throughout his life, he said it never spoke to him until he heard a vintage recording from the 1920s.
"There's a quality that really got me," said Berger, noting it is difficult to talk about music objectively. "Something about the scale it uses and the rhythms always suggested to me something very danceable yet paradoxically melancholy and at the same time full of fortitude and perseverance."
In a telephone interview with the Jewish Review, Berger said that when the klezmer music inspired him to begin writing a new play, he had no idea what form it would take.
"I would just put on the music and start taking notes," he said. "A mystery started to come out ? so I knew there had to be a detective."
Berger said he had decided he would never do a one-person play unless he could rationalize why the person would be talking to the audience on that night. But the idea of a detective lecturing to an audience to persuade them of his case was enough to persuade Berger he had found a reasonable one-person play.
In Lintel, the librarian's quest for a wayward library user ultimately turns into a quest to prove God's existence and to show how an individual can dance in defiance to the unfairness of life.
Dancing in spite of it all is a quality Berger said he feels in klezmer music.
"Dancing is engaging with life," said Berger. "Dancing is a way of going about life as a human being."
In "Underneath the Lintel," the librarian presents "An Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences" including a battered suitcase full of scraps of paper, irreparable trousers and an early 20th Century wax cylinder. Throughout the 80-minute performance, the librarian seeks to persuade his audience that the miscreant borrower is actually the real man behind the myth of the Wandering Jew.
In an afterward to the play, Berger wrote, "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."
Berger said the myth enabled him to encompass a lot of history and to present the idea of scale and people's inability to imagine the enormity of the universe.
"I believe we can't begin to understand what our own condition is until we start to grasp that scale, which is so large it is ungraspable," said Berger. "To truly grasp that enormity leaves you bewildered and odd. The intensity of that is definitely something related to spiritual."
Berger said that enormous scale can make one feel insignificant, but he believes that an individual life is only significant when it is seen in the context of its relationship to family, friends, country and world.
"If each of us was like a morpheme, a part of a word, it would seem as if we were not making any sense," said Berger. "But put that morpheme in the context of a word, put that word in the context of a sentence and keep telescoping that out to see the morpheme is part of the most wondrous book of all time. The th might not seem significant. But the book wouldn't be complete without it. Seen in that context, the universe gives us meaning and conversely we contribute in our small way to giving the universe meaning."