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Theatre Thu Apr 04 2013
By William Shunn
Our first introduction to the twin Eastern European city-states of Beszel and Ul Qoma comes in the company of two angry and grieving American travelers. Mr. and Mrs. Geary have arrived in Beszel to identify the body of their daughter Mahalia, a graduate student found bludgeoned to death. Because of the urgency of the ensuing police investigation, the Gearys have been admitted to Beszel without the weeks of cultural orientation most visitors must undergo. They have only a cursory grasp of the unconventional way in which Beszel and Ul Qoma coexist, but if they don't pay attention and adapt quickly they'll commit a breach of diplomacy that could put their lives at risk.
It's sink or swim for the audience, as well, in Lifeline Theatre's terrific production of The City & The City. Adapted from the brilliant 2009 novel by China Miéville, Christopher M. Walsh's brisk, effective script immerses us quickly and shrewdly in the protocols of life in Beszel, where a literal misstep can spell disaster. With the Gearys as our perplexed stand-ins, Walsh and director Dorothy Milne dare us to keep up, and one of the pleasures of this play lies in those "A-ha!" moments when the peculiar nature of these intertwined cities (which I will strive not to spoil) begins to clarify.
The audience at the performance I attended last Friday night seemed to do just fine, unlike the unfortunate Gearys, whose stay in Beszel is destined to be short. But by that point we've begun to get our bearings, thanks to our guide through the labyrinth of these rival cities — Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad, played with understated virtuosity by Steve Schine.
As lead investigator on the murder case, Borlú discovers that Mahalia's postgraduate work on the history of Beszel and Ul Qoma angered nationalist and reunificationist factions alike, in both cities. When he realizes Mahalia may actually have been killed in the other city, he is forced by political necessity to cross the border and assist his ideological enemies in the Ul Qoman police department as an unofficial consultant.
Fascinating as it is to watch Borlú navigate his own tricky city with competence and assurance, it's even more fascinating to see him operate in Ul Qoma. Not only is he struggling against his role as a pawn in a sketchy diplomatic skirmish, but he must also consciously reverse a lifetime's perceptions just to survive in the twin city, let alone solve the mystery. And hovering over all the action is the constant threat of Breach, the shadowy interstitial police force that monitors all border activity and swiftly deals with any violators.
Breach is the cocked hammer keeping everything in both cities in line, more terrifying and implacable than even the Stasi of East Germany. As Borlú unravels a series of crimes that cleverly crisscross the border without ever violating Breach, it becomes more and more impossible to see how he can achieve justice without himself Breaching.
The City & The City is a complex thriller in a complex setting, served well by its minimalist set design and careful staging and lighting. Everything from the way characters walk and do or do not make eye contact with each other to the way the illusion of various languages being spoken is evoked has been well thought out, contributing to an overall effect of both cerebral thrills and visceral danger.
This is at its root a political fable about perception — how custom shapes it, and how it divides us so deeply that we often can't see what's standing right in front of us. The play draws us so deeply into this world that at times we feel an absolute chill at the way our own perceptions have been altered, as in one powerful scene when Borlú stands dangerously close to a familiar location but dares not acknowledge where he is.
This may all sound ponderous, and the action may skip a little too swiftly across some complicated plot points, but The City & The City is never less than entertaining. It's perhaps unfortunate that the play has been described as a blend of police procedural and science fiction, when it's really more of a rigorously realist thought experiment. At intermission I heard some audience members wondering aloud where the science fiction was, but after the final curtain these same people were talking about how eager they were to read the original novel. Theater management was clever to stock ample copies in the lobby.
This is the last week of the production, which runs Thursday through Sunday at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave. in Rogers Park. Tickets are $40 ($30 for seniors, $20 for student with ID). For more information, visit lifelinetheatre.com or call 773-761-4477.