Working Title: Only the Best

Will Leschber embarks on the fools errand of putting together a best of list when the year hasn’t yet come to a close. Enjoy…

This time of year falls to looking back. We see the year as a whole and take time to reflect and collect our best and worst moments of the year. Shortly, most media outlets will be flooded with their respective “best of 2013” lists. Since there are never enough of those out there in the blogospheres and various media tiers, I figured I’d provide a short list here as well. For brevity’s sake, today’s list shall be limited to a top 3. Top selections of film and theatre as seen my me.

This year in film has been strong. Or at least the latter half has been, but that’s always the case. The highlights remind me of how transportive great film can be. By no means does a mere top 3 list encompass the entirety of quality film entries this year AND this isn’t necessarily the order or my final top 3 BUT they are some favorites that best fit the focus here. Meaning, not simply were they some of the years best, but they optimized the best aspects of what the film medium can achieve.

After all that ado here we go…from the top down

#1 Gravity: Alfonso Cuaron’s film was a monumental success on many fronts. From a technical stand point (editing, cinematography, score, sound design, visual effects) the film offered innovation and excellence. Also the uncommon storytelling was executed expertly. It features Sandra Bullock’s best performance to date. And if that was enough, the film was a giant financial success. Gravity shows the power of the film medium by placing us out in orbit with our astronauts and relentlessly pushing us through their spectacular struggles.

#2 12 Years a Slave: Based upon Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography, 12 Years tells the harrowing journey of a free black man who is abducted and sold into slavery. Narratives of this kind bring the story stakes to the highest level. However, it is director Steve McQueen who elevates the story above the mere biographic details by shining a light into variant corners of our humanity and collective past. It also features one of the best performances of the year. Chiwetel Ejiofor who plays our lead, Solomon, is simply superb. 12 Years a Slave shows the power of film by making this 150 year old story emotionally immediate and terribly accessible through its even lens. It’s a hard watch but there are few better out there this year.

And now for something completely different…

#3 Frozen: This latest entry into the Disney animation cannon reminds us how good animated fairy tales can be. This may seem light fare compared to the other two on this list but, I tell you, not a single frame is wasted in this re-imagining of the Hans Christian Anderson tale, The Snow Queen. The wonderfully rich and deep color pallet is stunning to look at. The songs co-written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, of Book of Mormon and Avenue Q fame, rival the best in Disney’s back catalog. While playing with the familiar tropes that we love about these animated tales, Frozen also turns the true-love morality story on its ear and provides something fresh after all these years. The voice cast is chosen upon ability and character fit instead of star power. In short, Frozen is supremely satisfying. It feels like the best of good old-fashioned animated musicals. I’m not ashamed to say I saw it twice.

The best pieces of theatre that I was privy to this year range from the regional/professional to the personal independent. These stories would fundamentally change in another medium which only speaks to their power as theatre.

#1 Terminus, The Magic Theatre

This play closed the season last spring at The Magic Theatre. Boy, what a finale. Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe weaves a tale of intersecting lives on a dark Dublin night. Singing serial killers, love sick demons and other unconventional characters populate this play that is told in a series of rhymed monologues. With only three actors, a charcoal rocky raked stage, and minimal lights, Terminus relies upon it’s acting and it’s writing. Both of which are stellar. It’s a hard play to wrap ones head around with its violence and lyric poetic language, but when all the theatrical pieces work this well together it makes for potent theatre.

#2 Underneath the Lintel, ACT

Beginning with one small act of mystery, the return of a 113 year past due library book, this one man show opens up to the universal and the sublime. Lintel concerns itself with human endurance, trials through suffering and small decisions, maybe even not our own, that affect our lives in monumental ways. The play excels in this theatrical setting mainly because of its singular performer, David Strathairn. He imbues this piece with so much heart and compassion that I would have spend many more hours listening to his librarian spin further yarns on life and the dancing mysteries therein.

#3 Age of Beauty, The Exit Theatre

What this play, written and directed by Stuart Bousel, captured for me was the sense of all the important conversations that one has in their 30’s. Redefining ourselves , the loss of friendship, measuring up to our own expectations, being ok with the fact that life isn’t what we thought it may be: these things and more are on the table for discussion between four pairs of women. Like all excellent theatre, this play is held up by superior dialogue and genuine characters. We remain with these women for an hour and a half because we like them, we laugh with them and we get frustrated with them. They are real to us. Their unique perspective is valuable because it illuminates our own. In viewing them, we are privy to insight we may not have had and are reminded of things we may have forgotten. It’s life circa our 30 year old selves.

The best part of making these end of year lists is having people tell you how wrong you are…or right. What were your favorites of 2013?

WORKING TITLE: To Dance Defiant

Will Leschber looks to the One-Man shows when “All is Lost” “Underneath the Lintel”.

What decisions in life remain the most important? How do we measure it all? What significant artifacts do we leave behind? Is anything we leave behind significant? Or is the struggle and the suffering and the joyous dance in spite of all the dark, the only significance we are afforded? What better way to examine what it means to exist than by taking in a one-man show. In the one-man arena, Theatre and Film can be stripped to their essential parts. No flash, no show-stopping set pieces. We are left with acting and the story that actor is telling. When left in the hands of a singular performer for near two hours one would hope they are up to the task. Luckily David Strathairn and Robert Redford are indeed. Strathairn stars in “Underneath the Lintel” at ACT and Redford’s film “All is Lost” recently opened in theatres. Although they are both one-man shows, the ways in which their stories are conveyed are fundamentally different: one is primarily auditory and one primarily is visual.

Written by Glen Berger, “Lintel” tells the story of a Dutch librarian who finds a very overdue book. This book is in fact 113 years overdue. What the librarian discovers inside this long overdue book sends him globetrotting in search of a wandering myth.

This story is relayed directly to the audience as if we had come to see a lecture at the library. Slideshow included. These brief slides aside, the experience is almost purely auditory. The play could be taken in eyes closed. We listen to the deft Strathairn wind us in his long yarn for an hour and a half and we are happy to be entwined. The feat of the theatrical one-man show is this: keeping an audience entertained vocally for the length of a show all the while maintaining constant character traits, dictating pace, and allowing the myriad of high energy character comedy and deeply felt empathy to be expressed with equal skill. Forget your lengthy 2 minute audition monologue. How about an hour and a half monologue? All of the Librarian’s storytelling is leading us to one thing: the Wandering Jew.


“Underneath the Lintel…lintel not lentil. If you do not understand this, all is lost,” Strathairn says framing his story. Half way through the show the audience begins to hear the myth at the center. But first for anyone who doesn’t know, a lintel is a piece of wood or stone that lies across the top of a door or threshold that bears the weight of the structure above it. The Wandering Jew myth is born of a small decision made underneath a shop lintel and the weight that decision comes to carry. Our Dutch librarian relays the tale about a Jewish shop owner who, under threat of Roman Guard, sends Christ away from his door where the savior was resting on his way to the crucifixion. For this fleeting decision of self preservation, Jesus curses this Jewish shop owner to forever walk without rest until the second coming. Our lovable librarian in search of this myth is transformed into a wanderer himself in the way that we all are searching for significance through the small moments in our lives. How often does a small decision made under a doorway affect our years to come? Maybe I should have held her closer. Maybe I shouldn’t have gotten into that car. Maybe that job was worth taking. Maybe this all would have been different if not for that fleeting momentary decision. “Though we rarely recognize the place, underneath the lintel is where we stand every day, every moment, of our lives.” (Berger).

Thematically the content of “Underneath the Lintel” is similar to the Robert Redford helmed “All is Lost”. Both concern themselves with human endurance, trials through suffering and small decisions, maybe even not our own, that affect our lives in monumental ways. J.C. Chandor wrote and directed this sparse tale of an elderly mariner who’s yacht is hit by a loose piece of drifting freight.


This singular occurrence leads Redford, credited in the film only as ‘Our Man’, towards monstrous sea storms, shark infested waters, dwindling supplies and possibly an end without salvation. Or is he saved after all? Those wondrous ambiguous endings get you every time! This modern Old Man and the Sea tale is purely visual. This may go without saying being that film is a visual medium, but in this case, I mean that the film would play equally well with all sound removed. The script is near dialogue free and a mere 32 pages long. However the unfolding visual opera plays for 106 minutes. Normally a page of script equals a minute of screen time, so this expansion is a feat of visual storytelling. So much of the film is framed in close medium shots on Redford, so that every storm wave and rain pelt is felt. Every inch of boat rope is gripped and pulled by the audience along side our drifting Man. Although dialogue is drastically minimal, Redford has his performance cut out for him. At 77 years old he is subtle and as good as he ever was.


Even if each production can be broken down to its bare “Auditory” or “Visual” category, each is enhanced and made whole by its collective parts. Glen Berger in his authors note says,

“Humanity inevitably finds the strength, despite our mistakes and tragedies, to rebuild, to persevere, to proceed until death does us in. In the face of overwhelming existential bewilderment and terrible suffering to respond with a little defiant dancing (in all its myriad forms) is a very human and wondrous thing.”

In the end its all one man can do.

“Underneath the Lintel” has been extended until Nov. 23rd. “All is Lost” is in theatres now.

CN_Allislost.jpg. 2013. Photograph. Thecouchsessions.comWeb. 5 Nov 2013.
All is Lost. 2013. Photograph. Web 5 Nov 2013
Berger, Glen. “A Note from the Playwright.” Underneath the Lintel Playbill. n.d. 14-17. Print.
Berne, Kevin . Underneath the Lintel 2 Web. 2013. Photograph., San Francisco. Web. 5 Nov 2013.