My Barking Dog
by John Stoltenberg
“Barking dog” is what the Latin name for coyote means, and we learn a whole lot more about the critter in this wildly imagined comedy, a two-hander by Eric Coble. For instance for several years now, coyotes have been abandoning the wilds and begun showing up in cities. (Indeed, they can be found in DC’s Rock Creek Park and in Maryland and Virginia statewide.) But coyotes are not exactly what this play is about.
Running only through October 13, 2019, in a wildly entertaining production presented by Edge of the Universe Players 2 and directed by Michael Chamberlin in the intimate Caos on F space, My Barking Dog is as wondrous as it is weird. Melinda, a printing plant worker, and Toby, jobless and half-heartedly looking for work, are visited by a coyote that changes their lives—and perhaps urban life as we know it.
“This is a true story,” says Melinda, played delightfully by a gamine-like Tia Shearer in T-shirt and bib overalls.
“It may not all be accurate—,” adds Toby, an amiably winning Christopher Crutchfield Walker, his wrinkled shirt untucked, his tie undone.
“But it’s all true,” declares Melinda.
And if you can buy into that conundrum and the fanciful tale to come, you’re in for a wild ride.
Prefacing the play, we hear a track by the Talking Heads: “I got some wild, wild life / I got some news to tell ya oh oh / About some wild, wild life”—a tease to both the show’s theme and the stunning sound design by Tosin Olufolabi, which will shortly astonish and surround us. We sit on stools arranged at random within the playing area, the entire floor of which has been painted blazing yellow—like a no-exit hazard zone. Around the space are four pillars of crumpled paper speared on floor-to-ceiling spindles. And as we entered the theater, the two actors were lying huddled/cuddled on what looked to be a thick black shag rug but turns out to be black plastic mulch passing for ash. This mini-dystopia set design by Giorgos Tsappas combined with Kristen P Ahern’s suitably nondescript costumes and Colin K. Bills’s curiously disorienting light scheme makes for one of the most original theatrical worlds I’ve seen come to life at Caos.
The play begins with a stretch of first-person character exposition that seems to be ambling nowhere. As Melinda and Toby deliver their several monologues, we learn, among other things, they’re both loners. Melinda likes to work her night shift in the plant when no one else is there: “If I wanted to talk to people I’d work with people.”
For his part, Tony keeps trying to get a wifi connection in his apartment, where he stays put most of the time: “The hardest thing about being unemployed is that you get to know your neighbors. Better than you want to.”
Both Shearer and Walker make this meander as appealing as it can be, but not till that lone coyote drops in does the play kick into fully charged storytelling. And doggone it, what a tale gets told.
When the coyote shows up—symbolically signaled by Olufolabi’s amazing music cues—it is absolutely real to Melinda and Toby, who live in the same building and share the same fire escape but have never met. The coyote connects them. They feed it. They stay up at night to watch for it. They get to know it, and in a surreal way it knows them—or so they believe and imagine. When the coyote doesn’t come around for a while, Toby goes to a park to find it by tracking its distinctive poop, which he graphically rhapsodizes about (in a speech that surely qualifies as a close encounter of the turd canine).
There’s a point to it all. A big and important and provocative idea. A notion that does not tumble out of one’s mind once the show is over. And it hits Melinda and Toby at the same time:
TOBY: The question is: Are the coyotes the last dregs of a wild we are inevitably surrounding… or are they the first scouts of a wild that is inevitably surrounding us?
MELINDA: The question isn’t what right does he have to live in my city. the question is what right does my city have to be in his life?
TOBY AND MELINDA: And that changed everything.
So much of the enjoyment of The Barking Dog is the surprises Coble has in store—what Melinda decides to do next, what happens to Toby—and it would spoil the fun to know too much. Suffice it to say that “The wild need a home too” becomes Melinda’s activist mantra, Toby gets an unexpected family, and maybe, just maybe, the earth is better where the wild things are.
Running Time: 85 minutes, with no intermission.