We've all stood in the supermarket checkout line and eyed the tabloids flashing their weirdo and sensational headlines. Perhaps we smile and shake our heads, wondering how they come up with these things, and why anyone would be gullible enough to purchase the publication. But buy them they must because there's no shortage of these sorts of papers.
Writer Ron Carlson has allowed himself to play riffs inspired by such headlines and characters. In 1987, his collection of short stories, News of the World, was published, and some of Carlson's stories, from that book and other collections, have appealed to theater folks as having theatrical value, specifically as monologues. Winding Road Theater Ensemble is closing its season with a show titled News of the World, a collection of nine profiles of folks whose stories might qualify them for prime placement in the tabloid version of the news.
Winding Road's production gives us a good idea of how difficult it is to transfer a piece not written for the stage to a theater setting. It also shows how rather empty the impact of such a group of disparate ideas can be when offered as a full evening of theater.
Four actors take on these nine characters, presenting a parade of very different personalities, and challenging the actors to summon their skills and sympathy as they represent each of these disparate folks. The company includes Susan Arnold, Seonaid Barngrover, India Osborne and Steve Wood.
The first act begins with "Bigfoot Stole My Wife." Sounds familiar, right? We meet Rick (Wood), a redneck sort, but lovably so. He begins his tale with a pronouncement that credibility is the problem, not so much for just this particular incident, but for, well, everything. Since he returned home and found his wife gone, along with some of her clothes and a suitcase, and a strange, hairy smell in their home, he believes with such conviction that this is the work of Bigfoot, and has met with such disbelief from others, that he has had sort of a conversion. If this is possible, then anything is. It's a very funny tale, and actor Wood gets the evening off with a bang.
Then follows a series of monologues—Carlson's stories, to be more precise—the combination of which is meant to constitute our evening of theater. There is "The Time When I Was Dead," "Shopper's Head Explodes," and a "Baby Born with 2000 Year Old Bracelet," all tales from ostensibly normal people dealing with extraordinary issues. And, yes, there is humor aplenty. But Carlson, along with our actors, create characters who, although odd, are not caricatures. They are not here to be made fun of; they are real folks with unusual stories, and sometimes, as they share them, they might deliver a bit of insight into a world different from the one we're used to.
The monologues—the characters—aren't related in a way that ties them together, and their stories are independent of each other. That creates big challenges for actors and director when wrangling these unrelated folks into an effective piece of theater.
The first challenge is recognizing that these monologues were not written as theater. Carlson writes novels and short stories, and the nature, and goal, of that brand of writing is different from writing for the stage. (I could find no information about whether Carlson made adjustments to his stories with this in mind.) One of these differences is that prose does not have to have the economy, the succinctness, of writing for the stage. That's not to say that these pieces can't be effective as theater, but a series of monologues defies the basic nature of theater, which most often involves an integrated story with characters involved with each other. Here, seemingly random characters, each telling their own tale, are substituted for an integrated story. But since there is no discernible overarching theme, there results a need for strong guidance not only for the actors sharing their characters, but for making sure that these individual pieces give us a sense of movement and wholeness as theater.
It also makes for great challenges for actors. A single actor must create a character, a story—a world—that commands our attention and sympathy and moves us, taking us somewhere, without the usual roster of characters helping to get the story told. That's a huge job, and some actors here manage that job better than others.
Director Leslie J. Miller has staged the show quite simply, which works well. There doesn't need to be a lot of "stuff," because our focus needs to be on the storytellers and the images they create for us. She should encourage her cast to watch their pacing and energy. Several individual pieces need to be tightened up; sometimes, although the actor has done the inner work of character-building, there isn't that crucial leap to share that character's connection with us. In general, the entire piece would work much better with a quicker, more energetic pace.
This is not the kind of theater that lingers with us. It certainly can amuse us—Wood's turn as the keeper of the "Tablecloth of Turin," the stained cover that was draped over the dining table of the Last Supper, is absolutely hilarious. And there are other effective, more somber, moments. But taken as a whole, News of the World just isn't a very satisfying piece of theater. It's neither here nor there; this nor that.