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Saturday, March 16, 2013

Unseen Ambition: City and the City at Lifeline Theatre

When initially announced, Lifeline Theatre's  2012–2013 season seemed to have been ripped from the headlines of the diary where I record deepest Theater Nerd Desires: Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White; Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds; and China Miéville's The City and the City. 

We saw WiW in the fall and it was SPLENDID. The spousal unit, who is disinclined to take my reading recommendations, had to agree that Marian is one of the greatest heroines (and the direct ancestress of Gail Carriger's Alexia Tarabotti, whom he loves) and Fosco  one of the greatest villains in all literature.

Later last year came the announcement that they would not be doing Bridge of Birds this year (although I believe they have it on tap for next year), but they subbed in The Three Musketeers. So what's important here is that they have not strayed from my deepest Theater Nerd Desires.

But that's not why I brought you here. I brought you here, because did you catch how I slipped in "China Miéville's The City and the City"? And did you say to yourself: Madman say wut? Because that should be unadaptable, right?

NOT SO.

We saw it this afternoon and it's far more successful than I imagined it could be. Joe Schermoly's set is a simple set of doors fronted by two wide steps with a set of uniform windows above. Otherwise, the scene is suggested by a few pieces of furniture and the costuming (Izumi Inaba) and movement direction (Amanda Link) of the cast as they move through Besźel and Ul Quoma, two cities occupying the same time and space, each politically required to remain "unseen" by the denizens of the other. Brandon Wardell's "nothing up my sleeve" lighting design primarily employs the visible street lamps, while still managing to shift scenes fluidly between the main character's narration and the action unfolding around him. Christopher Kriz's inobtrusive music and sound design also serve the adaptation well.

And Christopher M. Walsh's adaptation is so impressive, given the novel. The novel is nothing short of amazing, but like everything of Miéville's, not exactly straightforward. Walsh translates concept, plot, and character to the stage in a 2-hour production that necessarily simplifies the text, but nothing about it is flat or wanting.

Early on, there's some needful exposition through dialogue, but it is economically confined to interactions with a pair of foreigners who are understandably confused by the fundamental existential differences in this part of the world (c.f. any given episode of CSI or Bones, which squanders easily 38 minutes of every 42-minute episode with main characters [WRONGLY] explaining things to other main characters when it is shit every character ought to know). The main characters, when speaking to foreigners, shift into generic "Eastern European" accents and back out again when conversing with other "natives." (As someone who works on ethnicity and boundary guarding, really, the residents of each city ought to sound accented to one another, however, close their languages are in reality . . . but I quibble because I can and because I love.) It also takes the production a little time to really capitalize on Miéville's humor, but hits all the  right notes once it does.

The adaptation is skillfully handled by the actors and director Dorothy Milne. In a few cases, the repurposing of actors might have been handled slightly more attentively to make the differences between characters more marked and the performances more consistent. For example, Millicent Hurley is impressive as Professor Nancy, the academic advisor of the woman whose murder is at the center of the novel,  but less memorable as the same woman's mother.  Similarly, Patrick Blashill's performance as David Bowden, an archaeologist disgraced by his early forays into questionable scholarship, but less thought seems to have gone into his brief turn as a nationalist villain.

But the leads are solid and consume so much stage time, that any directorial or performance missteps are minor.  Steve Schine is remarkable as Borlú (and, I imagine, exhausted at the end of every performances). Schine has remarkable chemistry with both Marsha Harman (Corwi, the constable assigned to the investigation in Besźel) and Chris Hainsworth (Dhatt, his counterpart in Ul Quoma).

It's not a perfect production, but the flaws are so minor and the undertaking is so ambitious that any shortcomings rapidly fade from memory. Unspeakably impressive job with something really challenging.


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