Sunday, October 02, 2016

Eric Coble’s mesmerizing MARGIN OF ERROR exposes political machinations

The Cleveland area has been and is ripe with playwrights.  Mike Geither, David Hansen, Margaret Lynch, Jonathan Wilhelm, Michael Oatman, Eric Schmiedl and Faye Sholiton are only a few of the present-day writers.  Historically, Langston Hughes, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee were proud area playwrights.  Probably no local scribe has been more prolific than Eric Coble.

Coble has written well over fifty plays, the latest being MARGIN OF ERROR (or The Unassailable Wisdom of the Mouse and the Scorpion), is now receiving its regional premiere at Ensemble Theatre. 

The script received its world premiere in April, 2016, at the Boise Contemporary Theatre.  BCT commissioned the piece as part of its River Prize, a new play initiative launched this season.  MARGIN OF ERROR is the playwright’s third world premiere at BCT.  One of those, THE VELOCITY OF AUTUMN, opened there in 2011, went on to Broadway, starring Estelle Parsons, who was nominated for a Tony for her role in the show.  Cleveland theater legend, Dorothy Silver, starred in a production at Beck Center for the Arts before the show went on to the Great White Way.

Coble, who is a member of the Playwrights’ Unit of the Cleveland Play House, was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, raised on the Navajo and Ute reservations in New Mexico and Colorado, and now calls Cleveland Heights home.

Coble, who calls MARGIN OF ERROR “95 minutes of astonishing high-wire mayhem,” has written a script that should open viewer’s eyes to the backstage drama of political campaigns. 

The story centers on political consultant, Harold Carver, a high-powered puppet string-puller-of-candidates running for various offices.   He believes his purpose centers on, “controlling the narrative,” and, as  he says, his “job is to build up and destroy — to smear with honey or dog crap.’”  Though he purports to be a “helper to humanity,” he is a bottom feeder who thinks lies, blackmail, double-speak, and attacks by innuendo, are simply tools to achieve one’s goal.

Having worked on numerous political campaigns, I can attest to the fact that the Harold Carver’s of the world really do exist.

At the start of the saga, Carver (Michael Mauldin), a Caucasian, rushes into an empty gate area of the Cleveland Hopkins airport.  His plane is not going to take off as the city is socked in by fog.  In his company is Daphne Anderson (Mary-Francis Renee Miller) his new African-American intern. 

He quickly produces four smart phones, each of a different color (red, green, yellow and blue), each with a direct connection to either a candidate or Carver’s campaign-contact with the candidate.  He is managing nine campaigns at once,   each requiring his constant attention.  Each presents different scenarios, but all have the same purpose:  elect the candidate, no matter what!

There is also a black phone, which for all intents and purposes “doesn’t exist.”  It’s a personal phone, which, as we soon find out, is conveying messages from his lawyers and his wife, who is intending to divorce him, and her sister, who Carver is threatening to blackmail because of an affair she had with his wife’s ex-husband unless she talks her sister into not divorcing Carver. 

Daphne is a rarity…a black Republican, who has high values and believes in the American way, in spite of personal evidence that blacks, in this country, are not treated the same as whites.  Her brother, as a young black man, has been a victim of racial profiling, was sent to prison for possession of ADD medicine, which wasn’t even his.  He is yet again being threatened by over zealous police.

As Carver rants, sweats, screams and plots, he keeps reminding Daphne that they must live by the motto, “don’t fuck up the campaign.”  This is an obsessed man, proud of the fact that he is self taught, didn’t go to college, wasn’t brain washed by liberal professors, and who has disdain for Daphne’s Ivy League education.  He spends between 150 and 200 days on the road, conducting political business. 

Operating with the attitude, “People keep this country from being perfect,” he feels no qualms about ruining the life of an opposing candidate through blackmail and half-truths, believing that “a lie is only a lie until it becomes the truth.”  He runs his personal life the same way.

When Daphne starts understanding the way he operates, and challenges him, he snaps, “If you want to be nice, be a social worker or a Democrat.” 

The ending will surprise many.  At the climax point the opening night audience broke out in prolonged applause.  Coble, who was in the audience, must have been very happy with that reaction.

The script is well written.  Coble uses fog metaphors, and “folksy” tales to illustrate ideas.   A story that runs throughout the play concerns mice and scorpions and how one destroys the other.  

Coble has wisely written the piece as a long one-act, with no intermission as the script intensifies with emotion until the audience is left breathless.  Any break in the action would have tempered the over-all effect.

A few questions arise:  why are there no other customers in the seating area waiting for the delayed plane?  How come the television sets conveniently have news only about Carver’s candidates?  Maybe we just have to accept that this is the stage and there has to be some theatrical license in the story telling.

Director Eric Schmiedl keeps the action appropriately fast and furious.  He creates an atmosphere of tension that grabs and holds the audience from start to surprise finish. 

Michael Mauldin creates a Harold Carver who is real, scary and authentic.  It is impossible not to be amazed by Carver’s ingenious skills, as brought to life by Mauldin, while hating the political operative for those talents.   The role has many hundreds of lines and is basically a 90-minute monologue, with some interruptions by the phone calls, television voice-overs and Daphne.  Wow!

Mary-Francis Renee Miller nicely creates a Daphne who is properly naïve as it relates to Carver’s methods and the real world of political machinations.  She textures her characterization well.  Good job!

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:   If viewers didn’t have a disrespect for American political campaigning before, after seeing the well-written and performed MARGIN OF ERROR, they will probably be properly disgusted.  If they had concern, now they will be filled with even more disdain.   The play fulfills one of the major purposes of theater…to make the audience think.  This is a production very well worth seeing!

MARGIN OF ERROR  runs Thursdays through Sundays from September 30th through October 23, 2016 at Ensemble Theatre, housed in the former Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to

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