"The City & The City" begins with the discovery of the body of a young woman and proceeds with an investigation into her violent death. But although there surely is a whodunit element to this dramatic adaptation of the novel by China Mieville, the main mystery is not so much about the identity of the perpetrator of this terrible crime, but about its location.
As its title implies, "The City & The City," which premiered Monday night at the Lifeline Theatre on Chicago's North Side, is about a divided town, Beszel and Ul Qoma, with mostly hostile relations. At first, you think you are in some sci-fi version of old East and West Berlin, replete with fervent nationalists on both sides, a heavy totalitarian-style gestalt, and forces of unification agitating in the shadows. But as the piece moves along — we follow the noir-style narration of the investigating gumshoe, one Inspector Borlu — it seems that the division may not be physical but metaphysical, or ideological, or cultural, or mostly a construct of political masters. And a third entity starts to present itself, an entity with its own border issues: Breach. Maybe The City is the city that you see, while The City is the city that you tell yourself you don't. And Breach? Perchance it's the secret police, perchance that undiscovered country from which few radical travelers return.
Mieville, the well-known British author of the original novel and an unusual scribe whose eclectic work ranges from fiction to political theory, likes to call his style "weird fiction" — and that would indeed be apt. This is highly intellectualized sci-fi with a keen internal sense of the paradoxical. That said, "The City & The City" certainly has political content: one starts to see that corporations call a lot of the shots, whichever city might be in focus. And it's also a formatively intriguing piece of work. Despite the inherent retro sense that you get from a world-weary detective narrating an investigation that takes him deeper and deeper into himself, and the Orwellian references to "unseeing" and the like, the piece is shot through with hyper-contemporary references, from Google to Amazon to Facebook (all flexible entities, it's worth noting, that are not bound not by traditional borders).
It's not easy to stick two cities you maybe can't see — not to mention the forces that are "Breach" — on a stage and director Dorothy Milne takes a mostly neutral approach for this Lifeline premiere. You can certainly see why; creating even the most basic elements of this story would be problematic. But although Milne has the nicely cynical Steve Schine in her lead role and a generally solid ensemble cast of 10, you start to crave more theatricality, more risk, more dramatic choices, especially pertaining to these spatially co-existent locales. It feels like a missed opportunity, although some sci-fans will be so into these fascinating ideas they won't give a hoot.
Christopher M. Walsh's adaptation certainly is smart and richly wrought, but it's also heavily dominated by narration and comes off as strangely static. This story is a hybrid of two genres — detective fiction and sci-fi — which makes it challenging, but job one still remains keeping us invested in who killed this young woman and why. That gets a little lost in all the talk, even as other scenes escalate too quickly . What the show most needs is the time-honored slow-burn, ideally fused with a little dangerous sensuality, avoided here, but ideal for border-crossings nonetheless.
When: Through April 7
Where: Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Tickets: $40 at 773-761-4477 or lifelinetheatre.com