The City and The City

Tricia Collins (left) and David Mott (right)
Credit: Matt Reznek

At the Russian Hall until February 5, 2017

Posted January 31, 2017

When two of Vancouver’s most experimental theatre companies – Upintheair theatre and The Only Animal – collaborate, you can expect the results to be ‘out there’. Upintheair focuses on “speculative fiction” while The Only Animal creates work “characterized by wild experimentation and visual imagination”, according to the PuSh Festival program notes.

Based on the novel of the same name by British novelist China Miéville, this dystopian, futuristic, murder mystery, adapted by Jason Patrick Rothery, is interactive in a way that redefines interactive: in addition to the cast of eight, the audience IS the cast. Numbered and outfitted with an iPod and ear buds (or headset), audience members are shown to their numbered seats. ‘Seat’ is also redefined: two milk crates stacked on top of each other with a small pad on top. Every headset is individually programmed; when an instruction is digitally delivered to you via your iPod, you do what you’re told: stand up, turn right, push some crates around, pick up a bright orange prop, and in some cases, deliver lines you’re told to speak. You only hear the instructions meant for you. It seems strange when the person sitting in the dark beside you gets up, performs some action and comes back.

Stephen Atkins and David Mott
Credit Jonathan Kim

The crates form a large square around the periphery of the Russian Hall auditorium. More crates are scattered inside the square and that’s mostly where the ‘real’ (that is, the few paid actors) move around.

The story is even stranger than the setup: two imaginary cities – Beszél and Ul Qoma – were, perhaps, one city but sometime in the past were split apart in an event called Split. The residents of each city are denied entrance to the other city and any attempt to cross the border are considered “Breaching”, punishable by a group or an individual (that may or may not exist) called Breach.

A murder occurs in Beszél and Inspector Borlú (David Mott) is called in to solve the case. He is helped by police officer Corwi (Tricia Collins). They are required to cross over to Ul Qoma where they get into all sorts of trouble. The plot gets thicker and thicker, weirder and weirder with questions about an archaeological dig and evidence regarding the genesis of the twin cities. And, naturally, Borlú and Corwi meet Ashil (Darren Boquist) who may or may not be Breach.

The Audience
Credit: Jonathan Kim

The audience gets increasingly busy pushing crates or stacking crates as Borlú closes in on the murderer.

The premise is interesting but thrillers are easy to come by on TV and in film so the draw for this production is clearly in its presentation – which is cool. But it’s long at a hundred minutes, quite a bit of which time is spent sitting on those crates. Definitely not the show for anyone with back problems.

Directed by Kendra Fanconi, The City and The City is risky and brave, obviously innovative in its use of emergent audio technology to tell a story in real time. Who knows? It might be the future of storytelling.