Saturday, July 6, 2013

Top 5

A director friend of mine asked me to do a blog of my “top 5’s” – my top five favorite/most influential plays, films, TV shows, etc. A few other people have asked me the same question periodically, so I thought I would write them down, with a brief discussion as to why I like them so much. I find that some of my “top 5’s” are somewhat random and obscure, and if nothing else, I would love share them in the hopes that others might check them out.

PLEASE NOTE: These are my personal top five lists. This is not intended to be a list of the shows, etc. I think should be on everyone’s top five list, and I am certainly not arguing that they are the best films, plays, etc. of all time. They are the shows etc. that have had the greatest influence on me, that I love the most, and watch/read again and again. I believe strongly in their artistic excellence, but am writing this as a personal taste list. Not a world wide definitive list. Some are in order of preference, some are not.

Top Five (Non Shakespeare) Plays
(In order – with #1 being my favorite)

1.)   Our Town” – by Thornton Wilder (I was very fortunate to first be exposed to this play by seeing it (when I was about nine) and not knowing anything about it going into it. I think this play can easily get ruined by forced reading in school. Experiencing it live at an early age left a huge impression on me.)
2.)   The Pillowman” – by Martin McDonagh (This brilliant dark comedy about a writer in a totalitarian state being interrogated about the similarity of several recent child murders to the plots of his short stories had a tremendous impact on me when I saw the original Broadway production (several times.) Exploring the nature and power of storytelling this piece left me deeply moved, and thrillingly frightened - and inspired me to literally read Mr. McDonagh's entire body of work.)
3.)   Eurydice” – by Sarah Ruhl (One of the most beautiful shows I've ever seen - "Eurydice" tells the myth of Orpheus from Eurydice's point of view. Set in an Alice in Wonderland-like Hades, in Sarah Ruhl's hands the story becomes about the nature of love between a father and a daughter just as much as between Orpheus and Eurydice. The beautiful scenes where Eurydice doesn't remember who her father is, but he knows her all too well are heartbreaking. And the piece plays with the beauty of language in a way not found in many contemporary plays.) 
4.)   Arcadia”- by Tom Stoppard (Fun fact: the wonderful background music by Corin Buckeridge is the ringtone on my phone) (I first saw this show when it was revived on Broadway in 2011. Oddly knowing nothing about it going in (I went to see a friend who was in the cast,) I was mesmerized by the story and language. Set in the same house following two interconnected stories set over one hundred years apart - "Arcadia" is a challenging play, and that's one reason I like it so much. It intellectually challenges me every time I see or read it. The theme of the things we hold most dear never really being lost is stunningly revealed, and the play elevates math to the stuff of poetry.
5.)   Frankenstein” adapted by Nick Dear for the National Theater of Great Britain. (This adaptation in which Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller alternate in the roles of Frankenstein and The Creature really goes back to the heart of the source material, but tells the story principally from the Creature's point of view. Genius acting, direction, and design come together in one of the most stunning pieces of theater I've ever seen - taking such beautiful risks (the first 15 min. or so is all but completely silent physical work performed by the Creature - expressed in the script by the single stage direction (paraphrased): The Creature comes to life. This show is part of the National Theater Live series and has had encore performances all around the country. I highly suggest checking it out.

Top (Four) Shakespeare Plays
(I’ve divided it up into my favorite in each genre – hence four instead of five.)

Tragedy – “Hamlet(The David Tennant film is my all time favorite) (I mean, it's "Hamlet." Is there anything to say? This play gets to the heart of the human condition in a way nothing else does.)
Comedy – “Twelfth Night(I like my comedy a little dark and tragic - and "Twelfth Night" is anything but fun and games. The show opens with Viola having lost her father and brother, and having to dress as a boy just to survive being alone in this new land she finds herself in. Olivia is in morning for seven years because she has also lost her father and brother. Malvolio ends the play quite tragically - there is no happy ending for him. Viola is almost murdered, and the show ends with the heart wrenching reuniting of Viola and her twin brother Sebastian. And yes, there's comic hilarity in between. I like my comedy with a little tragedy and (like in "The Pillowman" - my tragedy with a bit of comedy.) 
Romance – “Cymbeline(Literally Shakespeare does "Snow White.) (This is a beautiful, tricky play that is terrifically close to a fairy tale. And personally, I think Imogen beats Rosalind as one of (if not THE) strongest female character.)
History – “Richard III” (Check out “Looking For Richard” by Al Pacino) (Richard III is unique as a Shakespearean villain. He's not out for revenge, like Iago, he's not manipulated like Macbeth, no, Richard III does what he does because he's bored, and he can. He reminds me of Moriarty from the BBC's "Sherlock." He's incredibly smart, charming, and gets off on manipulating, and bringing down the people around him. He makes the audience complicit in his actions, tells us exactly what he's going to do, and then manages to manipulate us TOO as he's doing it, then turns to us and says: "See what I just did! Wasn't that awesome?!" We don't sadly watch him ruin his life, we, somehow, enjoy the destruction he causes, even as it destroys him. 

Top Five Musicals

1.)   Wicked(This is a very personal show for me, and had a great impact on me for a lot of reasons when I first saw it with the original cast. I know the show has gotten some flack, but I just think it's so beautiful, and explores a type of crusader-like character that we don't get to see very often.)
2.)   Into The Woods(I mean, it's Sondheim does fairy tales. Who's surprised here? :) )
3.)   Damn Yankees” (The first “adult” musical I ever saw, and ever performed in. The show that introduced me to Gwen Verdon, Bob Fosse, and the idea that musical theater could be a serious, adult art form – and didn’t just consist of shows for children (my earlier experience with musicals had been, appropriately, “Annie,” “Peter Pan,” etc.)
4.)   Pippin(A beautiful, moving, commercial but experimental show that brings together two of my favorites - Stephen Schwartz, and Bob Fosse.)
5.)   I’m still saving this spot ;) Haven’t decided yet.

Top Five Films
(In order – with #1 being my favorite)

1.)   Pan’s Labyrinth(I don't even know what to say about this film. It's so beautiful. And I really appreciate that it doesn't shy away from (what I term) a "Lord of the Rings-esque" ending. To me, LOTR has the best ending of any story I've ever read - because it's beautiful, but real. You don't return from a great trial unchanged. Things don't go back to the way they were. There is hope, and love, but there is also a truly great cost. The ending to "Pan's Labyrinth" is joyously bittersweet. And I think expresses a part of the human condition that is incredibly difficult to explore. I saw this film multiple times in the movie theater - and that's a very big deal for me.)
2.)   The Lord of The Rings” – esp. “Return of the King” (See above.)
3.)   The Little Mermaid(This is my all time favorite story, and was my first exposure to the amazing Howard Ashman. Enough said.)
4.)   Tie between “Apollo 13,” “A League of Their Own"Heavenly Creatures" and “The Wizard of Oz.” I know, I’m cheating. (These are all just really good, brilliant films.)
5.)   Mirrormask(Like “Till We Have Faces” (see books) – you will either love this movie, or hate it. There’s no in between. It’s a little “trippier” then the films I tend to generally go for, but in this movie, it really works.) ("Mirrormask" was my introduction to Neil Gaiman. Asked by Lisa Henson to do a "modern day "Labyrinth"-like film" Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean have come up with a remarkably out of the box film. Where as "Labyrinth" is so bad it's brilliant, "Mirrormask" is just brilliant. I think it mixes one too many stories together (it's kind of "The Prince and the Pauper" meets "Alice in Wonderland" meets "The Wizard of Oz") it's a testament to the film that I don't really mind.

Top 5 Books/Stories
(In order – with #1 being my favorite)
Note: This is a REALLY hard one for me to pick only five.

1.)   Till We Have Faces” – by C.S. Lewis (This book will either become your favorite book ever, or you’ll hate it. There’s no in between.) (A retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche (the earliest basis for "Beauty and the Beast) - Lewis considered this his greatest work. A study of sacred vs. profane love, I still don't think I fully grasp this book - and it's one of the reasons I re read it so often. And it describes certain emotional experiences in a way I've never heard better described.)
2.)   The Little Mermaid” – by Hans Christian Anderson (actually, lets just list all the classic fairy tales – collected works of the Grimm Brothers, and Anderson esp. as #2) (This is pretty much the only fairy tale that doesn't have a happy ending. No, she doesn't get the Prince in the end. This is a beautiful story about the true nature of love, and sacrifice, and it's always spoken to me in a very special way. And as we all know, I adore fairy tales in general.)
3.)   The Giver” – by Lois Lowry (This book does two things stunningly right - it creates a truly seductive distopian world that, ironically, kind of works. Yes, it's a distopia - meaning there are a lot of dark things hiding below the surface, but this is a world that has successfully gotten rid of poverty, hunger, unemployment, class, and race distinctions. At the same time it explores issues of the power and danger of choice, and the nature of emotion and humanity. There are no crazy chase scenes, no trying to topple a regime - just a little boy who has to learn how to feel. And must decide whether feelings are in essence dangerous, or liberating.
4.)   The Great Divorce” – by C.S. Lewis (A short book - you can read it in one sitting. This story dares to explore the idea that the damned are in fact damned by choice. What could cause someone to chose a life in hell? Turns out, for reasons that are uncomfortably relatable. Whatever your religion or spiritual beliefs, this is a brilliant book that gets to the heart of what sin and salvation are - and it's much more complicated then we like to think.) 
5.)   Never Let Me Go” – by Kazuo Ishiguro (This book has some of the most emotionally moving passages I've ever read. I won't give away the plot - big twists and spoilers, but in essence it concerns three life long best friends: Cathy, Tommy and Ruth who live their short lives from beginning to end through out the course of the story. Having, or not having time is a big issue - and the relationship between Cathy and Tommy was so moving to me, I even named a character in one of my plays in honor, and reference to the Tommy in this book. There is a film version - that I must recommend for the beautiful performances of Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield - but important parts of the plot, and much of the language are left out - so please read the book first.)

Especially honorable mentions: “Matilda” by Roald Dahl, (If you ever want to know what I was like as a child, read "Matilda.") “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte, “Walking on Water” by Madeline L’Engle, “Alice in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll, “The OZ Books” by L. Frank Baum, “A Wrinkle In Time” and “A Wind In The Door” by Madeline L’Engle, “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

Top 5 TV Shows
(In no particular order)

1.)   Dead Like Me(A sadly short lived series, Georiga Lass is a rather sullen eighteen year old who ironically is forced to get her life together only when she dies and is recruited as a grim reaper. Beautifully deals with life and death in a tragi-comic setting. And did I mention it stars Mandy Patinkin?)

2.)   Slings And Arrows” (A send up of the Stratford Shakespeare festival in Canada - each season follows one main, and one secondary show being put up by the festival - and real events backstage mirror the themes and events of the Shakespeare play being put on (season 1 is "Hamlet" - in which the ghost of the old artistic director begins haunting his successor and protoge Jeffry Tennant, season 2 is "Macbeth," and season 3 is "King Lear." The show stars brilliant Canadian actors (including a beautiful Rachel McAdams before she was famous.) And if that's not enough to convince you, check this out: 

3.)   Sherlock(A modern update of the classic "Sherlock Holmes" stories - you must see this show to understand it's brilliance. Each season consists of three hour and a half length episodes - so it's more like three movies a season then a series of episodes. And it stars Benedict Cumberbatch (see "Frankenstein" above.)
4.)   United States of Tara (Starring Toni Collette this show is about Tara - a kind, smart American wife and mother who has multiple personality disorder. Also a tragi-comedy, the show gives Collette the opportunity to play characters as diverse as a slutty teenage girl "T," to a gentlemanly red neck man named "Buck." A tour de force performance. Brilliant, and deeply moving.)
5.)   I’m using #5 as my collective “Sci Fi” category – including: “Star Trek: The Next Generation,”Stargate Universe,” and “Dr. Who” (spec. the David Tennant years)

Also a very special honorable mention must go to Shelley Duvall's "Faerie Tale Theater." (Starring the likes of Robin Williams and Vanessa Redgrave - yes, in EVERY EPISODE, "Faerie Tale Theater" masterfully tells the classic fairy tales - and ones you've never heard of before, highly accurately to the original source material.

Top 5 Authors (not playwrights – for that, see top plays)
(#1 is my favorite. The others are in no particular order)

1.)   C.S. Lewis
2.)   Madeline L’Engle
3.)   Neil Gaiman
4.)   J. R. R. Tolkein
5.)   I am still debating who should take this spot ;)