Sometimes the best way to attack a complex object is through an excess of simplicity. As Lifeline Theatre’s production of China Miévelle’s The City and the City unfolded, it became clear that the book itself was staggeringly complex. Miéville tells the story of two cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma , that weirdly…overlap. They’re not supposed to, they’re supposed to stay separate and be treated separately by their respective citizens. Still, oddities multiply in consequence, and are thrown into relief when a Besźel police detective is called to investigate a murder of an American college student studying in the sister city.
Miéville's writing is known for its baroque stylings and subtle socialist perspicacity. Transliterating The City and the City from the printer's rack to the theater boards sacrifices description from the narrative voice and conveys it instead to the characters' dialogue and reactions. The effect creates the illusion of a crime drama that is slowly crosshatches with Kafkaesque satire. The effect is to be lulled into a false sense of social realism, hence when things start to get strange, they go full-out surreal.
What sells it, as in much of Miéville's work, is the absolute acceptance by the characters that All This is Normal. The overlapped condition of the two cities is a marvel of ontological metaphysics, yet is treated by the main character, Inspector Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad, as merely a snarl of bureaucratic red tape. The response of the citizenry, from city officials to radical fringe groups, is not incomparable to a lot of real-life experiences in certain chunks of Eastern Europe who have seen their national and civic bounderies redrawn and redrawn extensively in the past hundred years, shifting whole neighborhoods that had remained static for centuries until the machinations of empire and capital started to adjust map borders with mortar shells.
What transcends both the novel and the play beyond the literary pavilion of Soviet block allegory is that the metaphors are as real and concrete as the paving stones and the corpses are symbols of nothing but dead victims.
And after all that, Lifeline Theatre had to make it make sense on stage, an apt task for a theater company that specializes in adapting the unadaptable. Fellow ensemble members Rob Kauzlaric and Paul Holmquist mentioned in an earlier interview with Comrade Baldino an interest in adapting one of Miéville's more involved novels, Perdido Street Station as a possible follow-up to their acclaimed stage version of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. (Continuing with the motif of doppelgangers and parallel worlds Lifeline actor Chris Hainsworth--who here plays the methodical and by-the-book Ul Qomanian detective Qussim Dhatt--played the London rogue and ne'er-do-well the Marquis de Carabas, in an altogether different urban fantasy of overlapping cities and secret plots.)
It could have been very, very easy to get lost in a story this complex, but at no point was the story confusing focusing only on Borlú's investigations through a miasma of political machinations, culture shock, and secret conspiracies. It was a production that had Citizen Baudler gasping, jumping, and on the edge of her seat at times at suddenly clear mysteries and deepening intrigue. Just as the play’s subjects were required to profoundly believe the unbelievable in order to make sense of it all, so too was the audience. In the end, as in all the best crime stories, nothing will be the same after this case for Inspector Borlú, and the audience will never look at a crowded street the same way again.
Visit Lifeline Theatre for tickets; The City and the City runs through April 7th.
Greg Baldino and Liz Baudler both write for Chicago Literati. Based on the euphonious pairing of their last names, they are also considering starting a rinky-dink law firm.
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