Entries in American Players Theatre (2)



Playwright Glen Berger’s script conjures a multitude of questions in his play Underneath the Lintel that draws from historical legends and mythology. Written in 2001, the one character drama produced by Milwaukee Chamber Theatre relies considerably on the acting genius of James Ridge, a 16-year veteran imported from Spring Green’s American Players Theatre. His portrayal of a Dutch Librarian searching for a person who would return a traveler’s guide in deplorable condition 113 years overdue will visibly move the audience when he leaves the stage 90 plus minutes after they sit down.

Luckily for Chamber Theatre audiences, Ridge deftly handles the nuances to the this bereft Librarian’s persona, who since losing the love of his life spends all his time stamping books returned in the library’s night slot. Without sitting to rest for the entire performance and no intermission, Ridge mysteriously follows the clues he uncovers in the overdue book over centuries and continents through his knowledge of reference materials. As the audience eventually discovers, The Librarian then unknowingly follows the path of what is known as the Errant, Eternal or Wandering Jew.

Art, drama, literature and music retell these wanderer stories through the eyes of various cultures and Berger intertwines this history with his mix of quirky humor befitting a Dutch librarian trapped in his small town. Poignant moments reflecting questions that have haunted humanity drift through the dialogue that also reawakens curiosity in the audience.

Initially, Ridge’s quest appears ludicrous, and the audience needs to sit back and enjoy the preliminary storytelling. Before Berger and Ridge fully confront what “underneath the lintel” eventually means and the subsequent journey. For those unacquainted with this tale, transcendence waits, when the audience fully comprehends everything that can happen underneath the lintel.

Which perhaps begins when the Jewish nation first painted their lintels with blood so the angel of death would spare them from an Egyptian Pharaoh’s captivity and destructive curse. This became the Jewish Passover, a precursor to the wandering Jew legend, which supposedly occurred during Holy Week.

Ridge carries the audience and the weight of the wandering Jew’s journey by using numbered evidence to prove this person may actually exist. The only concern The Librarian faces could be if he proves this legend as true, then must God truly exist as well? Which opens a whole Pandora’s box of existential mysteries: Why is each person here? What is love? And what constitutes one person's existence in a short span on earth? 

These questions only subtly reflect the themes in Berger’s play, carried out on a lonely auditorium stage, where a chalkboard, humble desk, dilapidated suitcase and slide projector are effectively interchanged. Chamber Theatre’s compelling Underneath the Lintel may be appreciated on multiple levels. Even if only to marvel at Ridge's perfromance, again directed by C. Michael Wright, to attain this command of the stage. His ability to captivate the audience in this highly intellectual but humorous play reveals another one of drama’s reflection on “everyman," pertinent to each person sitting in the audience.

While Underneath the Lintel applies few answers to the questions the play poses, the script is well worth revisiting. In a flight of fancy at the final scene, the constantly in motion Librarian and an effervescent, masterful Ridge dance off the stage. When The Librarian believes life needs to be cherished when one discovers those moments to “revel in mirth and beauty.”

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre presents Underneath the Lintel ias part of the "Exploring Jewish Voices" series n the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center through March 17. The company also presents a staged reading of Plaza Hotel Ballroom by Alice Austen on Monday, March 4, 7:30 p.m in the Skylight Bar & Bistro. There annual Young Playwrights Festival happens the weekend of March 21-24. For further information and tickets, please call: 414. 291.7800 or click the link to the left.      by Peggy Sue Dunigan



When family or friends tell a story, whether in confidence or jest, whose story does this become when the words enter the wider world? When words go forth through the lips, Facebook or twitter does this suddenly place the stories into public domain?

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre explores these interesting questions in their current production Collecting Stories. Pulitzer Prize winning writer Donald Marqulies based his award winning play on an actual legal case from 1993. When novelist David Leavitt drew “inspiration” and material from a British author’s autobiography. The writer, Stephen Spender, eventually won an out of court settlement where Leavitt’s original books were then destroyed.

Marqulies recreates this scenario with more at stake than “collected and recycled stories," or publishing rights.  In a period of time covering six years, acclaimed author Ruth Steiner accepts a student in her class, Lisa Morrison, to work as her personal assistant. Over this time, Steiner helps develop Morrison’s talent as a successful writer. The pair also assumes a surrogate mother/daughter relationship, so when Lisa appropriates several of Ruth’s most intimate stories, Ruth feels betrayed and bereaved.

American Players Theatre actor Sarah Day illuminates the cranky and quirky Steiner, a Jewish woman who lives partially in the past glory of Manhatten’s Greenwich Village during the neighborhood’s heyday in the first half of the 20th century. She has built an artistically renowned career, yet longs for her youth and “more” from her lonely writing life.

As Morrison, Laura Frye carefully evolves into a writer who discovers her literary footing by worshipping Steiner, clinging to every word she utters. Ultimately mourning the loss of the main woman in her life after writing her new novel, Morrison claims she has only attempted to honor Steiner's personhood and help define her life from an alternate perspective.

These circumstances become pertinent dilemmas to be discussed. In an age where authors write autobiographies while “inventing” their lives and New York Times Newspaper reporters fictionalize facts for articles, how can a reader decipher the truth or what to believe and is this important for fiction?

Multiple websites and individuals claim sentences, paragraphs and stories from the internet without permission or acknowledging copyrights, freely appropriating information as people once downloaded music and movies from the world web. Where does “collecting information, stories and songs” begin and end?

The advice Steiner gives to Morrison appears highly relevant, great wisdom for those who write. However, if these two women really loved each other as the script portrays, something surely would have been mentioned before these final actions. While the Leavitt/Spender legal case involved two less invested individuals, Margulies’s captivating play leaves sparse redemption for two friends who supposedly respected each other as the play describes, perhaps to heighten the play’s concluding scenes.   

Decide the answers to these questions by investing in Day and Frye who recreate a stunning Steiner and Morrison under C. Michael Wright’s accomplished direction. The definition of "intellectual property" remains a continually disturbing dilemma, similar to telling stories to friends, in real sentences with words or written on Facebook. There can be consequences to these actions, and in a less face to face world, people become bolder in what they write on walls and then take away without any remorse. Perhaps everyone needs to be more sensitive of what can be put into public space as MCT’s Collected Stories so powerfully illustrates.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre presents Collected Stories at the Broadway Theatre Center's Studio Theatre through December 16. For further programming in coordination with the company’s “Exploring Jewish Voices” and the play's collaboration with Madison’s Forward Theater Company, the production moves to the Overture Center beginning January 16. For further information on programming or tickets, please call  414.291.7800 or click the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre link to the left.   by Peggy Sue Dunigan