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Mercedes Hesselroth

My Barking Dog: What happens when a coyote shows up with a message

By Mercedes Hesselroth

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.

In 2017, the American Psychological Association acknowledged the existence of a new psychological disorder: eco-anxiety. The disease can cause a spectrum of despair in response to the effects of climate change, including substance abuse, anxiety, depression, and chronic stress and fear. However, some psychologists do not classify eco-anxiety as a mental illness, despite many overlapping symptoms, because they believe the underlying cause is “rational.” As Swedish teenager and environmental activist Greta Thunberg said at the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference: “Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve the crisis without treating it as a crisis.”

The variance of individual responses to communal concerns is one of many ideas confronted in The Edge of the Universe Players 2’s current production of My Barking Dog by Eric Coble. Staged in the round by director Michael Chamberlin, the play centers on two neighbors who don’t even acknowledge each other for a large chunk of the play until the mysterious appearance of a city-dwelling coyote outside their home. Most of the tale is imparted to us through interlocking monologues from the earnest Melinda (Tia Shearer), who works the graveyard shift at a printing plant, and the recently unemployed Toby (Christopher Crutchfield Walker), who lives near the largest cell tower in the world but can’t manage to get a connection on his hand-me-down phone.

Like his visitees, the coyote is a nocturnal creature who travels alone. Melinda and Toby both find a renewed purpose in their interactions with the unnamed and untamed animal. Melinda starts out by leaving meat for him to take while Toby begins a nonstop research quest to learn as much as he can about the canis latrans. Both Shearer and Walker excel in maintaining intimacy with the audience and choosing when to make critical eye contact. Leaning on her experience in children’s theatre, Shearer brings a wistful sincerity to Melinda’s direct address and guides us through what might otherwise be an abrupt heel-face-turn for her character later in the play. Walker serves up a balance of gallows humor and exasperation as the downtrodden Toby, whose resilience has been knocked down a few pegs since losing his job. Multiple audience members nodded in agreement to his miserable adages about unemployment, insomnia, and technology.

If it’s possible to have a scene-stealer in a show with only two characters, that designation goes to the impeccable scenic design by Giorgos Tappas. Though the floor is painted bright yellow, the set gives the feeling of a bunker or post-apocalyptic landscape. Columns of recycled newspapers stretch to the ceiling, framing the static-filled box televisions in opposite corners of the room and an unsuspecting pile of mulch arranged in a perfect circle. The seating arrangement of stools strategically placed around the edge of the gallery space also contributes to the initial sense of desolation.

If, as Toby observes, “the two hardest things about being unemployed are looking for work and not looking for work,” then perhaps the two hardest things about knowing of global catastrophes are trying to solve them and knowing you cannot. Luckily, we don’t have to do it alone. As the pre-show track “Road to Nowhere” by the Talking Heads invites us to do for the next 95 minutes, “come on inside/taking that ride to nowhere/we’ll take that ride.”

The Wheel Theatre Company exits with The Winter’s Tale

By Mercedes Hesselroth

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.

With the holiday season quickly approaching, so do the stresses that accompany the tricky social etiquette around visiting and hosting loved ones. You might do your best planning and preparation – altering seating arrangements to keep divergent personalities away from each other, creating three different menus to appease everyone’s dietary preferences, diffusing every conversational time bomb – and still not foresee a yuletide crisis. But even if there is drama at your dinner table this year, take comfort in the fact that it certainly can’t be worse than the conflict that befalls the guests and hosts of The Wheel Theatre Company’s The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare.

King Leontes of Sicily (Lee Havlicek) and his heavily pregnant wife Hermione (Elizabeth Ung) have welcomed King Polixenes of Bohemia (Colton Needles) into their home for nine months. Leontes is happy to extend his childhood friend’s stay, until he baselessly concludes Hermione and Polixenes have conspired to steal his crown by producing an heir of their own behind his back. Too deep in his own conviction to realize his accusations of adultery are unfounded, Leontes unsuccessfully plots the murder of his friend and forces Hermione to give birth in prison before subjecting her to a trial.

Needles’ performance as Polixenes stands out for his balance of steadfast rationality and sincere concern in the wake of Leontes’ jealousy. Highlighted in this production is the urgency with which Sicily’s court of advisors must act against a paranoid king’s rages. Yet, even when they present Leontes with his newborn, he still cannot bring himself to admit the child is proof of Hermione’s love.

We live in the era of the double-down. When those in the limelight make a mistake, be they lawmakers, comedians, or CEOs, rather than save face with a genuine apology it has become standard practice to shirk accountability and insist no error was made at all. Therefore, no effort is necessary to correct any harm or become a better person. This is the trouble that overtakes the prideful Leontes, but unlike the disappointing scenarios we see unravel in the public eye, Leontes eventually recognizes the gravity of his missteps and promises to reform, ushering a time jump of sixteen years to the lighter second half of the play.

Director Jack Read wisely lets the small size of the DC Arts Center theater guide a “less is more” approach to the production’s aesthetic. Paper snow and the soft haze of twinkle lights are enough to establish a cozy winter setting. The minimalistic design allows the Bard’s language to shine through, especially in the hands of such a capable ensemble. Since each player pulls at least triple duty to bring both timelines of characters to life, bright layers over loose, gray clothing help to distinguish their various ages and classes (costumes designed by Read, Grace Eda Baker, and Elizabeth Floyd). Of note are Mackenzie Larsen’s seamless shift from five-year-old prince Mamillius to lost princess Perdita and Moira Todd’s cheeky interpretation of the scammer Autolycus, who provides much of the comic relief and musical additions in the show.

The Winter’s Tale will be Wheel Theatre Company’s last local production before they head west to their new home in Nashville. It seems fitting they’ve selected one of Shakespeare’s more reflective works, and one of his final pieces, as their goodbye. Wherever your destination this holiday season, a trip to the DC Arts Center for this twisting tale of forgiveness and new beginnings is worth the visit.