Every time I see productions by writer/director Edward Einhorn and the Untitled Theater Company No. 61, I am gobsmacked by their innovation and their courage to present thought-provoking, unconventional shows. Their latest endeavor, an adaption of Paul Auster’s City of Glass, currently at the New Ohio Theater until March 12, is nothing short of astonishing.
Einhorn has adapted this first book of Auster’s New York trilogy with intriguing staging and theatricality. On the surface, the play, like the novel, tweaks the style of the noir-detective-mystery whodunit. But Einhorn then plunges it into a typhoon of surrealism and moves the focus from character to character. Played by one actor, Robert Honeywell, characters morph in and out of each other’s consciousness like ghosts blown about in a supercharged electrical storm. And the effect thematically suggests how our identities are amorphous and opaque because they are transformed according to the language of our circumstances as we interact with others and attempt to divine the perceived “reality” of what is happening at the moment.
We discover the arc of the Narrator’s story of detective Quinn in a labyrinthine process that is finally revealed at the end. The Narrator has discovered Quinn’s mysterious journey, accompanied by compelling individuals, written in a red notebook. To relate it he dives into the persona of Quinn, the prototypical P.I. who is not who he seems. Quinn is hired by the character/writer “Paul Auster” who wants him to solve a mystery and protect client Peter Stillman Jr. This sounds simplistic, but during the journey there are plot complications and twists. To follow the Narrator and his various character iterations is a compelling audience experience, for the road spirals in on itself. It is impossible to envision where the “action” will lead, just like in “real” life.
Honeywell portrays Quinn with trenchant edginess as he investigates a potential murderer, protects Stillman Jr., and gradually realizes he is morphing into aspects of the subjects he is questioning and investigating. While protecting Stillman Jr. from harm (he is hired by wife Virginia Stillman), Quinn is assiduous about leaving “no stone unturned,” but he is caught up in the Stillmans’ intrigue and ends up also discovering much about himself that is unsettling. Nevertheless, he probes deeper, compelling himself and compelling us to “move forward into the truth.”
The more Quinn pursues the case leads, the more confusing the discovered information becomes. It is absurd reality at its best. At its worst, it is a never-ending labyrinth of despair and uncertainty, for Quinn is reminded of his own past and the loss of his son and wife. Indeed, he is like a two-way mirror/glass backdrop, a focal image of the production, refracting images of himself that sustain no clear vision or comfort. In one of many plot convolutions and digressions, a suspect’s identity and Quinn’s are interchangeable. It is a sardonic irony and Quinn must muster his strength to continue along an uncertain inner/outer journey to nowhere.
In this profound adaptation Einhorn has distilled Auster’s ironic humor, plot, and themes. Some of these are: language is meaningless and inefficient – it dies as soon as it is uttered; the vagaries of communication lead to obfuscation not clarification; the inability to make oneself understood to others and oneself continually frustrates; we mirror the personas of others and are not quite conscious of their impact; our social context atomizes us and makes us compromise our very existence to conform to nothingness; we are our own doppelgangers; there is someone exactly like us who exists, and thus nullifies our own existence.
Einhorn makes Auster’s work his own with the help of an adroit design team (lighting, costumes, set, video), and actors. Honeywell is exceptional in performing the demands of the myriad roles. He slides in and out of the challenging narrative and dons the characterizations (the Narrator, Quinn, Paul Auster, Virginia Stillman, Peter Stillman, Boston Stillman), with seamless, acute abandon, differentiating each consciousness. Smoothly crafted performances by Mateo Moreno as the Silent Man and Dina Rose Rivera as the Silent Woman, in roles delivered with the guidance of director Einhorn and choreographer Patrice Miller, help to layer Honeywell’s amazing characterization of the tripartite identities of Quinn, portraying two of the three.
Special kudos go to Freddi Price whose haunting, atmospheric musical compositions inform Honeywell’s narrative dynamic. This fine accompaniment propels the mystery of Quinn’s investigation and threads through the probes that lay bare Quinn’s evanescent, broken persona. Price’s musical selections evoke intriguing, sinister undercurrents about where Quinn is taking himself and us on this romp through identity chaos.
Einhorn has reconfigured the prose to retain the poetic beauty of Auster’s phrases and imagery, especially in the descriptions of NYC. He has included literary allusions which are clues to the themes and are effected by the staging of the cracked glass backdrop (referencing “William Wilson,” Poe’s short story about doppelgangers and identity, and Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll’s absurdist travels of Alice into life’s truths).
Aspects of Quinn’s consciousness materialize through the Silent Man and Silent Woman. They replicate Quinn’s gestures and movements as he sifts the uncertain “realities” of the situations before him. However, they symbolize “form” and contribute little to understanding the deeper aspects of his being, like light bouncing off a clouded prism incapable of separating it into rainbow colors. Nevertheless, the tripartite Quinn is represented on the glass backdrop through close-ups of him and his inner facets (the Silent Man and Silent Woman) projected to heighten segments of his narration.
We are drawn to Quinn/Honeywell, curious to hear how he is provoked to indulge his own neurotic probing as he exercises his detective persona on an unsure mission. We empathize with his strange discovery. Our identity, too, is composed of many shape-shifting personalities that wax and wane like the moon. Like Quinn/Stillman we wonder whether we own a core being that defines us or whether our broken, wounded personalities cease to function as a unit, losing definition and power.
Quinn breaks an umbrella to illustrate a conundrum about the meaning of things: After a thing is broken and no longer fulfills the purpose for which it was made, should it still retain its name? Is a broken umbrella still an umbrella? Or does its brokenness destroy what it was? This crystallizes a key theme of the play. If people become broken and fragmented and are no longer the purposeful beings they once were, are they not someone else? Have they ceased to exist? And like shadowy throwaways, do they, following hard on that fact, eventually destroy themselves and disappear?
Einhorn has pulled out all the stops in this powerful and elusive production. In bringing the novel’s intriguing beauty to life with the genius of the design team and Honeywell’s portrayals, he has created an unforgettable theatrical experience. Einhorn’s conceptualizations, evoked by the staging, use of space, and video projections embedded on a “glass” scrim, convey a primal power which stirs the unconscious to grasp the expressed truth about persona and identity. This truth emboldens the themes and sends them straight into our minds in a provocative exercise. The effect is electrifying. For these reasons and others, City of Glass is a production you should not miss. It runs at the New Ohio Theatre until March 12.