Are there beings or spirits or entities that live inside us? It would seem so, especially in the morning hours when we are beset with borborygmus, the wonderfully onomatopoetic term for stomach rumblings. (Who the hell is in my intestines anyhow, making all that racket?)
Most of the time, however, we are untroubled by such disturbing thoughts. Not so the three people in These Mortal Hosts, a world premiere play by Cleveland playwright Eric Coble now being presented as part of the New Ground Festival at the Cleveland Play House. In this 100-minute one-act, we meet three average people from tiny Dove Creek, Colorado who have apparently had their bodies annexed by some force that they can’t control. And we’re not talking about a craving for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups here because, as we soon learn, these unseen occupiers are pretty serious motherfuckers.
It is a fascinating premise for a play by the preternaturally prolific Eric Coble. He’s written more than 200 scripts of various kinds in the past 25 years—which computes to eight per year or one every six-and-a-half weeks. That means Coble is writing a script more often than most of us attempt much less challenging activities, such as rearranging our sock drawer. More power to him for that.
For the first half of Hosts, the idea of having an uncontrollable force inside our body is compelling, as directed by Laley Lippard. In quick succession we meet middle-aged bank manager Phyllis, high school student Meaghan and a veteran butcher named Earl. They are strangers to each other, and they pretty much exist in their own silos as they address the audience and share their current fixations.
For all his cutting and slicing of animal carcasses, Earl is slightly amazed that he’s never seen any of his own blood, even from a loose tooth as a kid. But one day, he feels a pressure in his chest. Meaghan is mightily attracted to schoolmate Troy at a party and evinces the usual teenage girl angst, until she starts hearing a voice in her head. And Phyllis, single and childless, obsesses over her two black cats, Inkwell and Mr. Mistoffelees.
At first, these people and their problems seem not all that significant. And Coble treats them as such, using his proven ability to craft quips and amusing punch lines with deft precision. In particular, tightly-wrapped Phyllis generates a number of laughs as she talks about how she positions her desk just right in the bank so she can see everything.
Trouble is, she can’t see what’s happening inside her own body. And when she stops having her period and finds she’s pregnant—without having had sex for more than six years—the whole play flips upside-down. Let’s face it, no matter what else happens in a play, when a virgin birth is occurring that means we’re talking religion until the final curtain.
Aside from abandoning a promising premise, there are other challenges this script faces. By having the characters address the audience instead of each other (for the most part), we get no real sense of what they have at stake as they experience their physical, mental and spiritual changes. Sure, Earl talks lovingly about his wife Helen, but we never hear from her, while Phyllis and Meaghan are off on their own.
Coble attempts to address this by having Earl visit one-time customer Phyllis in the bank, bringing her offerings of liver and muffins. This relationship, aside from any religious connotations, comes across as forced and manipulative. And as Meaghan gradually makes peace with the voice in her head, she sees herself as The Messenger who must Proclaim to the world and Shield those who do not possess her vision. It’s not at all clear if this is supposed to be inspiring or downright scary. If it’s up to the audience, I vote for scary.
The climax of the play attempts to be shocking and disturbing, but since so much of the play has been taken up with jokey asides, the impact at that point is muted. Call it a death by a hundred quips.
Although the play has issues, the cast delivers Coble’s words with passion and power. As Earl, Fabio Polanco has a rough-hewn honesty and simple goodness, which helps anchor a play that desperately needs it. Megan Medley conjures a number of laughs as Meaghan, especially when she uses her newfound power to intimidate some boys at school. And Amy Fritsche deftly portrays Phyllis as a coiled bundle of nerves until pregnancy releases her in more ways than one.
The mission of the New Ground Festival is to help new plays get launched, and that is indeed an honorable and necessary goal. So major props to CPH for this effort! One hopes that the Festival thrives for years to come and continues to feature emerging theatrical voices—not so much those playwrights that already (and justifiably) enjoy exposure of their fine work at multiple venues across the country.
These Mortal Hosts
Through May 20 at Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000, clevelandplayhouse.com.