‘The City & The City’: Politics, murder occupy the same space in a surreal thriller at Lifeline
By Lawrence B. Johnson
If the idea of Big Brother watching your every move gives you the creeps, imagine trying to avoid attention if it’s a crime just to look at the wrong person on the street or walk into the wrong store — because all the people and all the shops occupy common space shared by two sovereign city-states. Such is the fanciful setting of China Miéville’s “The City & The City,” a political murder mystery novel brought to the stage with panache and dark seriousness, as well as remarkable clarity, by Lifeline Theatre.
In the mythic East European city of Bésźel, the body of a female American student is found, apparently the victim of a violent attack. The case goes to Inspector Borlú of the Bésźel Extreme Crime Squad. Very soon, two probabilities arise: A political element lies behind the slaying – the student’s research may have put her on to a firmly held inter-city secret. And the killer may have violated city boundaries, a punishable act known as Breach.
Twists and turns of plot eventually draw in the director of an archaeological dig, a disgraced professor, underground advocates of unification and entrenched defenders of the two-city arrangement. A critical shift occurs when Inspector Borlú’s superiors decide the whole matter must be handed over to police in the co-existent city, Ul Qoma.
That’s when Borlú (Steve Schine as an unglamorous but experienced cop who’s just trying to make things add up) encounters his iron-fisted opposite Detective Dhatt, also a veteran, who makes it clear who’s in charge in Ul Qoma. Chris Hainsworth’s strapping Dhatt is an immediately likable character, for all his bluster, and the camaraderie forged between the two detectives goes a long way in keeping the viewer engaged through the play’s convoluted switchbacks between city and city. Hainsworth’s Dhatt, rough-humored but ultimately practical, is to Schine’s gumshoe Borlú as John Wayne is to Columbo.
Bringing this cross-hatched manhunt to the stage was initially the work of adapter Christopher M. Walsh, who has distilled – or perhaps the word is processed – Miéville’s novel with a sure sense of cohesion amid the froth of complexities and the punctuation of surprises. It’s fun just watching this ball of yarn play out, and that’s a credit to director Dorothy Milne, who is also Lifeline’s artistic director. While the story moves forward often through Borlú’s narrative, the whirl of events is also made visible – and readily comprehensible – by the visible churn of characters bustling about the stage.
Yet, out of that human cloud representing the converged masses from both cities precipitate well-drawn characters beyond the two dogged detectives: Marsha Harmon as Borlú’s ever-ready, foul-mouthed police assistant; Millicent Hurley as the dig supervisor; Patrick Blashill as the fallen professor who may hold a key to the murder, and Don Bender as, well, a late-arriving official who, like Detective Dhatt, reveals unsuspected humanity behind a dark mask of authority.
The set, with its many doors and windows controlling the stream of players and perceptions, is the efficient handiwork of Joe Schermoly, artfully abetted by lighting designer Brandon Wardell. Izumi Inaba’s evocative costumes add much to the mixed aura of distant place and familiar function.
Lifeline’s skillful and imaginative adaptation of “The City & The City” is a head-spinning theatrical lark, even if in the end it’s little more than a guilty pleasure. But you can be sure that when the ride’s over, you walk out knowing you’ve been somewhere. Two places, actually. Just try describing them on a postcard.
- The off-beat, surreal world of China Miéville: Read the interview
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com