“I. Was. Here.”
Actor Sally Wingert furiously chalks these words on the walls of the Ritz Theater in Minneapolis as she rushes through the aisles during her solo performance in “Underneath the Lintel.”
Underscoring themes in Glen Berger’s studied 2001 solo play, her emphatic act of theatrical vandalism gives specific meaning to the anonymous graffiti that people have written from time immemorial. Peter Rothstein’s must-see production at Theater Latté Da, which opened Saturday and continues through July 1, is a whodunit story that delves into myths around Jewish culture.
Wingert plays a fastidious librarian whose life is overturned when a book is dropped in a return box 113 years overdue. She is consumed by questions about the kind of miscreant who would do such a thing, and not have the decency to return the book in person. She wants to find him or his descendants — partly so she can have the pleasure of levying a fine.
The librarian becomes an obsessive detective, following clues to England, Germany, China and Australia, with excursions into language and history (she’s all about knowledge, after all) as she surveys the ephemera of a man’s life. She eventually wonders whether the book borrower is the so-called “wandering Jew,” a Christian legend about a man who lives forever.
The Meryl Streep of Twin Cities theater, Wingert is masterful as the librarian, delivering a tour de force that holds you from the first moment, when we hear a mysterious banging on a door, through the end, an exultation of light and flying paper. Reams of dialogue flow from her with honesty and wit. Yet she also is totally present for the audience, whom she addresses as if they were at a lecture. (When a patron’s cellphone went off on opening night, she mildly upbraided him.)
Rothstein’s staging is elegant and simple, creating a sense of awe around the story’s central mystery. He also has made music central to the performance, commissioning a hauntingly beautiful score from Frank London, trumpeter for the Grammy-winning Klezmatics, a New York group rooted in traditional Jewish music.
Michael Hoover’s set contains a projector and weathered books, which the librarian uses to present evidence from her travels. Behind a scrim, an array of suitcases rises to the ceiling, with two musicians perched above the stage: music director Dan Chouinard, who plays piano, organ and accordion, and Natalie Nowytski, who plays bass and sings.
For much of the show, the scrim is unlit. But when the musicians perform, it radiates like a baroque painting come to life. London’s keening, poignant songs add dimension to a text that asserts eternal themes against the threat of erasure, and artfully seeks to rewrite both the past and present.