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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

'Lintel,' 'Lambshead' celebrate ephemeral obsessions

THE OVERDUE FINE IS ASTRONOMICAL: Stephen Coulter in Underneath the Lintel
  • AURORA THEATRE
  • THE OVERDUE FINE IS ASTRONOMICAL: Stephen Coulter in 'Underneath the Lintel'
Hoarders would salivate at the attention the play Underneath the Lintel and the anthology The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities pay to objects, both mundane and exotic. Both works have subtitles that signal their attention to tangible items. Glen Berger also calls his play “An Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences,” while the book, edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, has the less ironic subbed, “Exhibits, Oddities, Images and Stories from Top Authors and Artist.”

Lintel and Lambshead both rely on the narrative trope that invites an obsessive, near-microscopic examination of a material object to uncover unexpected insights. To use a word savored by Lintel, “ephemera” can hold more significance than first meets the eye. Metafictional authors like Umberto Eco and the late Jorge Luis Borges would delight in taken a mysterious yet seemingly ordinary oddment — like a postcard or an obsolete scientific instrument — would lead to increasingly deep layers of narrative the more the protagonist studies it. Dan Brown’s books like The Da Vinci Code, though much more accessible, have a similar love of research and the history of things.

Aurora Theatre presents a funny and engrossing remount of Actors Theatre of Atlanta’s 2003 production of Underneath the Lintel, directed by Jay Freer. The monologue play stars Stephen Coulter as an unnamed, absent-minded librarian from Holland lecturing his audience about his mysterious findings. When an unknown person returns a Baedeker’s Travel Guide to the Dutch library 113 overdue, the librarian embarks on an increasingly far-flung and outlandish investigation of who checked out the book.

The play’s “evidences” range from a claim check from a 1919 London launder to the 18th century records of an English estate to an Edison recording cylinder to a Roman coin dating back to 37 A.D., all leaving a tantalizingly vague trail of an immortal figure out of folklore: “A box of significant scraps to prove one life and justify another.” The more the librarian pursues the mystery through history and across the world, the more he questions whether life has any meaning. Coulter makes the librarian an amusingly tetchy personality, but also invests the role with poignancy, no more so when he pulls some objects out of his beat-up valise and fails to recall their significance, shaking his faith in the mission that has consumed his life.

Currently famous (infamous?) for co-writing the musical Spider-man: Turn off the Dark, Berger first saw Underneath the Lintel produced in 2001, and if anything, the play becomes more effectively quirky the older it gets. With libraries increasingly computerized, tools like date stampers and the overdue card in the back of the book hark back to the procedures of the past. Perhaps works like Lintel and Lambshead resonate in our digitized present because material objects simply feel more real than actions that take place over computers.

Cabinet of Curiosities serves as a kind of spin-off to the VanderMeer’s 2003 anthology, The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, for which fantasists like Neil Gaiman concocted wildly imaginary ailments and their methods of treatment. Cabinet looks a little closer at the effects of deceased, fictional intellectual Thackery T. Lambshead, who acquired all manner of gizmos, doohickeys and infernal machines over the course of his life. Different authors provide the backstory to various pieces, illustrated by such artists as Hellboy creator Mike Mignola.

Cherie Priest crafts one of the highlights in the story behind “The Clockroach,” a woodcutting mechanism that resembles a giant metal crustacean. The authors clearly delight in riffing on the format of academic papers: Priest’s “Addison Howell and the Clockroach” includes an oral history document, contentious footnotes and a fact-checking addendum.

Cabinet of Curiosities reads like the kind of project that will most appeal to other writers and professional researchers, since some of the authors camouflage their narratives behind dense passages of descriptive prose. Alan Moore’s “Objects Discovered in a Novel Under Construction” cleverly combines literary, architectural and archeological language, like the double-meaning of “storey” in the line “The topmost storey, where work has been halted, seems to be accomplished in a style that is entirely unrelated to the floors below.” Close readers will gradually uncover mysteries about Lambshead’s life, while more casual ones can appreciate the baroque illustrations and engaging concepts like the Bear Gun: “When it fires, it releases a live bear as a projectile.” Both the book and the play convey the pleasures of rummaging through the world's dustiest, strangest shop of antiquities.

Underneath the Lintel
. Sep. 15-Oct. 15. Aurora Theatre, Lawrenceville, 678-226-6222. www.auroratheatre.com.
The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities. Edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, Harper/Voyager, $22.99, 320 pp.

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