The first I heard of Duncan Macmillan and 59 Productions’ stage adaptation of Paul Auster’s acclaimed short story City of Glass was as I was being shepherded into a virtual-reality exhibit in the foyer of HOME a few weeks ago. In the excellent preview feature, titled My Name is Peter Stillman, you are placed in the body of someone you are not, being spoken to by a ghostly reflection in the window that mirrors your every move, yet is not yourself nor the character you inhabit in this world. It is both unsettling and alluring, much like the play it previews. Its impression of shifting identities and realities was apt preparation for the main feature.
Playing with identity and reality is City of Glass‘ bread-and-butter. Let me demonstrate: answering a wrong number in the middle of the night, depressed crime-fiction writer Daniel Quinn (played by Mark Edel-Hunt and Chris New, alternating intermittently) assumes his mistaken identity of Paul Auster (the detective, not the author) to pursue the case of Peter Stillman, who fears his deranged father (of the same name, and played by the same actor) is going to murder him after returning from prison.
Intending to follow him from the train station, Quinn identifies two figures who perfectly resemble Stillman Sr. and must choose which one to follow. In his investigation, he meets Paul Auster (the author of the story, not the detective) and also assumes the identities of both the protagonist of his detective novels and a fictional creation of Stillman Sr. As he delves deeper in the case, Quinn loses track of his identity and the truth of his reality.
It’s dense, then, and more than a little confusing. Yet this postmodern meta-theatrical framework contains a more traditional detective story at its heart that somewhat grounds it, and is structured so as to gradually acclimatise us to its unorthodox narrative. The play takes the uncertainty and intrigue inherent to the detective genre and, step by step, takes it further; it is only a little after the half-way mark that we jump into the deep end when Quinn’s perception of reality spirals out of control after hitting a brick wall with the case. Who knew detective fiction was such a compelling gateway drug to postmodern meta-theatre?
A special mention must be given to 59 Productions’ innovative use of lighting and staging. Though the stage stays physically static, it is transformed by shifting (and occasionally three-dimensional) projections of animated backgrounds, which seamlessly transport us from Quinn’s drab apartment to Stillman Jr.’s lavish walls of artwork to the bustle of Grand Central Station. This sense that we are in an environment that is at once both the same and different perfectly reflects the play’s central pillar of uncertainty.
The play’s ambitious rethinking of roles and identity means the cast’s acting chops should be stretched to the limit: every actor takes on a number of roles, and it’s striking that at the end of the play only five actors come up to bow. Jack Tarlton, who plays both generations of Peter Stillman (Stillmen?), is particularly impressive, capturing the father’s mania and his son’s deep psychological trauma. In the latter role, he moves like a marionette and speaks in a patchwork of timbres, accents and vernaculars, bringing a character who was locked in a dark room and deprived of language for nine years as a child to disturbing life.
City of Glass is clearly a difficult text to adapt to stage, and for the most part Macmillan pulls it off. The use of a narrator who recounts in detail what the characters are thinking and doing is probably a necessary inclusion for making sense of the confusing plot, and ensures the play is faithful to the source material. However, it also has a tendency to undermine the role of the cast somewhat, and they occasionally come across like puppets of the plot rather than characters in themselves. This may well be the point, as it is certainly in the story’s spirit, but it can make the action feel distant at times.
City of Glass is not an easy play to watch by any means: it is dense and convoluted, and at no point does this web of identities and misinformation come into focus. Nonetheless, it is a tremendously impressive production both in the range of its actors, its hi-tech and seamless stagecraft and its ability to make (relative) sense of Auster’s postmodern masterpiece.
City of Glass is playing at HOME Theatre till the 18th of March.