Eric Coble and his wife were walking their dog in Forest Hill Park when, off in the distance, they spotted a coyote. Somehow, improbably, it had made its way into suburbia — and connected with Coble's imagination.
Growing up on a Navajo reservation where his mother was a teacher, Coble sometimes heard coyotes howl at night. His friends passed around a children's book that celebrated the coyote's key role in Navajo mythology: the selfish trickster, but also a key figure in the world's creation. "He's the spirit of chaos," Coble says.
So that urban coyote in the park became the invisible star of Coble's new play, My Barking Dog, which premieres May 12-28 at Cleveland Public Theatre. The stark piece, titled after the Latin name for the coyote, Canis latrans, includes only two actors and minimal props. Its edgy magical realism fits the avant-garde CPT.
"It's a very strange, dark little show," Coble says.
The characters, Toby and Melinda, live alone in the same apartment building and meet on the back steps while awaiting their ghostly canine visitor. She works a solitary night shift at a printing plant; he's unemployed, his only connection to others the fickle Wi-Fi signals his laptop steals.
"I write a lot about solitude," says Coble, who knows the subject well because he writes full time from home. "[It's] one of the major issues of our age."
The coyote's visits drive both characters to bizarre obsessions and plot shifts that startled Coble's fellow members of the Cleveland Play House playwrights' unit at a recent reading. "It's very fun watching people watching it who have no idea what's coming," he says.
My Barking Dog is the 42-year-old Cleveland Heights playwright's 100th produced script. (His works include 65 plays and various radio, TV and comic-book scripts.) It's a departure for Coble, who often writes farcical social satires with eight to 20 characters. A more typical Coble work, Side Effects May Include, co-written with Seinfeld writer Marc Jaffe, was staged in CPT's Big Box workshop in March and plays April 30 at the Ratner School in Pepper Pike. It's a comedy about a woman whose Parkinson's disease treatment gives her an overpowering libido and her husband, who also turns to pharmaceuticals to try to keep up.
My Barking Dog is more darkly comic, disturbingly funny and haunting. Coble's stage directions insist that the coyote must never be seen.
"It's going to be so much more effective in the audience's mind," Coble explains. "They'll see their own coyote. There'll be 100 different views of coyotes in that room."