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The performance of Roberto Guajardo makes 'Underneath the Lintel' a journey worth taking

A tattered man shambles into a shabby rented theater. He is disappointed that so few people have come for what he has advertised as an "Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences," but, undaunted, he begins. He is a librarian from the Dutch town of Hoofddorp, and he wants to tell us about an overdue book.

A book returned after 113 years. Possibly by the same man who checked it out.

The librarian--he neglects to give his name--has a single job, and that is to apply his date stamper to a little card in every book that is returned. He scrupulously performs his duty; he is not immune to the library's petty politics, but he has no ambition at all, save perhaps to be promoted someday to the acquisitions department. He apparently has no friends, and has ventured from town only once, to tour a nearby cheese factory that turned out to be closed.

But he holds in his hands this sensationally overdue Baedeker's travel guide, dropped anonymously into the overnight slot. And his initially offhand search for the borrower's address--he must, after all, mail a notice for the fine--begins a journey that will ruin him. Or perhaps transfigure him.

This is Glen Berger's one-man play Underneath the Lintel, premiered in 1999 and now given life at Beowulf Alley Theatre Company. "Given life" is an apt phrase; the subject may strike you as dry as an old, well-thumbed Baedeker's page, but the script turns out to be both amusing and moving, thanks particularly to a compelling performance by Roberto Guajardo.

A blackboard, a slide projector, a battered trunk of tagged exhibits ... with these, the librarian attempts to support his increasingly unlikely but increasingly captivating narrative. One tiny clue leads to another: a book, a German streetcar archive, a dog named after a houseplant, the chronicle of an English estate, an old jacket, a Roman coin, someone whistling an odd tune in the background of a Polish ethnomusicological recording made early in the 20th century. The connections initially make sense, but seem more tenuous even as the librarian becomes convinced of his borrower's identity.

He is nothing less, the librarian determines, than the Wandering Jew of Christian myth. According to the tale, a Jew who chased the collapsed Jesus from his doorstep--underneath his lintel--on the day of the crucifixion was condemned to wander the world without rest until the second coming of Christ.

The librarian, who previously had passed his evenings half-watching dull Dutch television and never going out, suddenly finds himself compelled to track the Wandering Jew to London, Bonn, New York, even China and Australia. Along the way, he grudgingly develops a taste for theater ("travel broadens the mind"); the show he sees most often is Les Misérables, a cunning choice by playwright Berger, who never spells out the parallel: The librarian is becoming another Inspector Javert, obsessively chasing his own unjustly convicted Jean Valjean through the years.

It isn't clear whether the librarian is Jewish, Christian or None of the Above, but ultimately he himself assumes the role of the Wandering Jew. Having chased love from his life long ago, he now tramps ceaselessly around the world, never coming to rest, looking for some truth blurred in the margins of photos, on the periphery of the documents and artifacts he collects. For if he finds the Wandering Jew, he also finds proof of God.

Whether you see this flying Dutchman's quest as a triumph of sleuthing or a descent into madness, you can't help but be swept along by Guajardo's performance. Initially meek yet officious in the manner of men empowered to shush people, Guajardo, directed by the talented young Jennifer Bazzell, begins a neatly paced crescendo of obsession, his argument growing more vehement and impassioned, slowly revealing how his journey has broken him. "I'll be gone in no time at all," he says quietly, a bit distractedly, at the beginning of the show, and even then you know he's not just talking about leaving the theater at the end of the evening.

Guajardo is Tucson's great wasted talent. Maybe once a season, he's cast in a small role at Arizona Theatre Company that is frankly beneath him, and in the past few years, only the occasional appearance at the likes of Borderlands Theater has allowed him to show what he can do. At Beowulf Alley, having the stage to himself for 90 unbroken minutes, Guajardo proves what a fine actor he really is, delivering a physically precise and emotionally detailed but never fussy characterization.

Together with Fred Kinney's intentionally dowdy "backstage" set and Stephen Elton's nuanced lighting design, playwright Berger and actor Guajardo give us a tantalizing theatrical experience, in which all the answers promise to come with the turn of one more tattered page.

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