Upintheair Theatre and The Only Animal's production of The City and the City, on at the Russian Hall on Campbell Avenue as part of this year's PuSh Festival, is two experiments in one. An adaptation of China Miéville's novel of the same name by the playwright Jason Patrick Rothery, the piece takes the author's literary mash-up of speculative and detective fiction and reworks it for live performance. In the novel, the cities of Besźel and UI Qoma occupy the same geographical space and yet have distinct civic governments, laws, and cultural traditions, with residents forbidden even to look at each other. This latter imperative is enforced by Breach, a secret unit whose very existence is doubted because its agents remain invisible. When our protagonist, Detective Borlú (a perfectly rumpled and world-weary Dave Mott), discovers the dead body of Mahalia Geary, a PhD student from UI Qoma, in Besźel, his investigation requires him to collaborate with police (headed by Conor Wylie) on the other side of an invisible border. The Borgesian plot eventually leads Borlú to discover a conspiracy within a conspiracy (and I have to say that I enjoyed the subtle critique of academic empiricism that Miéville seems to embed within his narrative), causing our detective himself to be "in breach," a transgression of both the physical and metaphysical borders within and between the two cities that leads to a surprising denouement.
So far so procedural. Had Upintheair producer Daniel Martin (who first brought the novel to Rothery) and The Only Animal director Kendra Fanconi left things there, it might have resulted in a satisfying, if dramaturgically conventional, murder mystery. Instead, they and the rest of the company decided to try a second experiment: involving the audience in the solving of the mystery by conscripting us as participants. To explain: after collecting our tickets, we are each assigned a number by Martin, our responses to his questions seeming to determine which one. The numbers correspond to individual mp3 players, which we are handed by technical director Pedro Chamale upon entering the auditorium of the newly renovated Russian Hall, with the instruction to affix just one of the attached ear buds and to find our seat (two stacked milk crates and a pillow, and which also corresponds to our number). Over the course of the production a voice in our ear (Darren Boquist or Heidi Taylor, speaking to us live and in real-time, and working in conjunction with stage manager Stephanie Elgersma and sound designer Nancy Tam) will instruct us--at times collectively and in unison, at other times in smaller or larger groups, and at still other times singly--to perform an action, to handle a prop, or to take on a role and speak lines from the script. Because one does not know when, and in what capacity, one might be called upon, and also because the choreographing of our fellow audience members alerts us externally to the differences in our interior experiences of the same space, the conceit helps to amplify the story's themes of surveillance, and how routinely our civic attention is always already geared toward seeing some things and some people, and not others.
This was something that came out in the talkback that I had the privilege to lead after last night's performance, with members of the cast and the creative team relating the experience of building this work in the context of a city like Vancouver and a neighbourhood like Strathcona. Something else that came up was how richly and dynamically this work enacts a "dramaturgy of liveness," one that is necessarily different from performance to performance. That is, the experience of the piece will change according to how audience members react to and carry out their prompts. The conversation around how test and preview audiences responded to certain directions, and the adjustments that the company would then make (and are continuing to make), was truly fascinating and made me rethink how participatory performance can be truly collaborative rather than merely delegated.