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Top 10 Plays for Theater Newcomers

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A friend of mine recently confessed, "I haven't watched a play since junior high." He then asked me for suggestions. He wanted to know which stage productions were essential for a person who is new to theater-going, who might not have time to see plays very often.

His question made me wonder: Which plays represent the best elements of the theater? For those not too familiar with the stage, I present a list of ten shows that serve as an introduction to the world of plays.

1. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" by William Shakespeare

No such list would be complete without at least one Shakespearean play. Sure, Hamlet is more profound and Macbeth is more intense, but I recommend Midsummer for those new to Will's world. One might think that Shakepeare's words are too challenging for a theatrical newcomer. However, this fantasy-themed play of fairies and mixed-up lovers conveys a fun, easy-to-understand storyline. The sets and costumes tend to be the most imaginative of the Bard's productions. So even if you don't understand the Elizabethan dialogue, A Midsummer Night's Dream is still a wondrous sight to behold.

2. "The Miracle Worker" by William Gibson

Other playwrights such as Tenneesee Williams and Eugene O'Neil may have created more intellectually stimulating material than William Gibson's biographic play of Hellen Keller and her instructor Anne Sullivan. However, few plays contain such raw, heartfelt intensity. With the right cast, the two main roles generate inspiring performances as one little girl struggles to stay in silent darkness, and one loving teacher shows her the meaning of language and love.

As a testament to the play's truthful power, The Miracle Worker is performed every summer at Ivy Green, the birthplace of Hellen Keller.

3. "Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller

For some, this play is a bit overrated and heavy handed. I have always felt that the messages delivered in the play's final act were a bit too blatant for my taste. Still, Arthur Miller's play is a vital addition to American theater, worthy of viewing if only to witness an actor taking on one of the most challenging and rewarding characters in the history of the stage: Willy Loman.

As the play's doomed protagonist, Loman is pathetic yet captivating. As an audience, we cannot look away from this struggling, desperate soul. And we cannot help but wonder how similar he is to ourselves.

4. "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde

A striking contrast to the heaviness of modern drama, this witty play by Oscar Wilde has been delighting audiences for over a century. Playwrights such as George Bernard Shaw felt that Wilde's work exhibited literary genius but lacked social value. Yet, if one values satire, The Importance of Being Earnest is a delectable farce that pokes fun at Victorian England's upper class society.

5. "Antigone" by Sophocles

Yes, you should definitely see at least one Greek tragedy before you die. It makes your life seem a lot more cheerful. Sophocles' most popular and shocking play is Oedipus Rex. (You know, the show where King Oedipus unknowningly kills his father and marries his mother.) I always felt that old Oeddy got a raw deal. The Gods punish him for an unintentional mistake.

Antigone, on the other hand, is more about our own choices and their consequences, and not so much about the wrath of mythological powers. Also, unlike many Greek plays, the central figure is a powerful, defiant female.

6. "A Raisin in the Sun" by Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry's life was unfortunately brief. She passed in her mid-30s. But during her career as a playwright, she crafted an American classic: "A Raisin in the Run." This powerful family drama is filled with richly developed characters that make you laugh once moment then gasp or cringe the next. When the right cast is assembled (as it was for the original 1959 Broadway cast), the audience is in for an engrossing night of brilliant acting and raw, eloquent dialogue.

7. "Noises Off" by Michael Frayn

This comedy about second-rate actors in a dysfunction stage show is wonderfully silly. I don't think I have ever laughed harder and longer in all my life than when I watched "Noises Off" for the first time. Not only does it induce bursts of laughter, the play also provides hysterical insights to the behind-the-scenes world of wanna-be thespians, demented directors, and stressed-out stage hands.

8. "A Doll's House" by Henric Ibsen

George Bernard Shaw felt that Henrik Ibsen was the true genius of the theater (as opposed to that Shakespeare guy!).

A Doll's House remains the most frequently studied Ibsen play and with good reason. Although the play is well over a century old, the characters are still fascinating, the plot is still briskly-paced, and the themes are still ripe for analysis. High school and college students are likely to read the play at least once in their academic careers. It's a great read, of course, but nothing compares to seeing Ibsen's play live, especially if the director has cast an incredible actress in the role of Nora Helmer.

9. "Our Town" by Thoron Wilder

Thorton Wilder's examination of life and death in the fictional village of Grover's Corner gets down to the bare bones of theater. There are no sets, no back drops, only a few props, and when it comes right down to it, there is little plot development. The Stage Manager serves as the narrator; he controls the progression of scenes.

Yet with all its simplicity and small town charm, the final act is one of the more hauntingly philosophical moments to be found in American theatre.

10. "Waiting for Godot" by Samuel Beckett

Highly praised by critics and scholars, Samuel Beckett's absurdist "tragicomedy" will most likely leave you scratching your head in bewilderment. But that's exactly the point! Some plays are meant to be confounding. This tale of seemingly pointless waiting is something every theater-goer should experience at least once.

There is virtually no storyline (with the exception of two men waiting for a person who never arrives). The dialogue is vague. The characters are under-developed. However, a talented director can take this sparse show and fill the stage with silliness or symbolism, mayhem or meaning. For me, the excitement isn't so much found in the script; it is beholding the cast and crew's interpretation of Beckett's words.

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