If you want to know what The Vertical City is about, ask Dr. Greta Edelman (Erica Hatfield). “We’re not made to be satisfied,” she says of humankind. “No one’s ever figured out how to decode our souls.”
If she’s right, it’s probably not in the way you think. Written by Diana Burbano, The Vertical City (a collaboration between Artists Rep and The Actors Conservatory, it’s available to stream through June 30) would be a gloriously absorbing audio play if it ended before its final scene. Yet it becomes something more: a dystopian epic that is a meditation on dystopian epics.
Dystopian writing is based on a belief that confronting oppression brings us closer to liberation. But what, the play asks, if it doesn’t? What if the allure of a dystopia is (to quote New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis) that it gets audiences “grooving on the spectacle of their symbolic demise: bang, bang—we’re all dead”? What if the genre grows from a subliminal desire to be dissatisfied?
That question haunts The Vertical City, but it isn’t the only reason to listen. Led by director Dámaso Rodríguez, the production’s cast and crew have created a portrait of a post-apocalyptic Portland that overwhelms you through the precision of its sounds, the power of its performances, and the sheer emotional force of Burbano’s saga of injustice, both societal and personal.
The Vertical City begins with Dylan (Dustin Fuentes) and Orville (Wyatt Hodgson) salvaging Becky, a mysterious device from “the Before Times.” Burbano doesn’t offer a clear timeline of the events that marked the end of the Before Times and the beginning of the world as Dylan and Orville know it, but it’s clear that Becky symbolizes a brighter past. (She has the ability to give people new memories.)
The Portland in The Vertical City is a multi-tiered metropolis that forces the poor to fester on its lower levels (like all great sci-fi, the play barely exaggerates reality). Dylan dreams of living on the upper levels, a desire that is not entirely materialistic. Trading Becky for a home on the top is his only chance to get adequate healthcare—and the influential Soleil (Bitty Garrett), who one character describes as a collector of “weirdos,” is creepily eager to help.
Burbano’s vast ensemble of characters initially seems to be starring in an Oregon-based Blade Runner, another tale of people trying to preserve what little they have left in the face of annihilation. Unfortunately, their struggle turns out to be partly a tool of oppression, like the revised version of the prophecy of “the One” in the Matrix films.
By diminishing the destinies of her characters, Burbano diminishes the audience’s sense of control. I spent most of The Vertical City believing that I knew what it meant, and when I realized that I didn’t, I felt baffled and betrayed—not necessarily in a bad way. Burbano’s obliteration of your assumptions is as exhilarating as it is scary.
In The Vertical City, everyone is enhanced by technology. Each character seeks their lost humanity, but when the game is rigged, the search for freedom is no exception. Burbano almost seems to be arguing that dystopian fiction itself is rigged—that by dwelling on tales of totalitarianism, we’re wallowing in doom instead of saving ourselves from it.
As I listened to The Vertical City, I took notes not to stay focused, but to savor everything. How about the squelching sound when Becky is extracted from Officer 726 (Magnolia Brown), a cop overwhelmed by the sensations Becky can provide? How about Garrett’s ingenious decision to make Soleil both condescending and flirtatious? How about the arcade-style sound effects conjured up by Jake Newcomb and Rodolfo Ortega (who also composed the play’s score)?
Those details and many more combine to create a production that demands and rewards your attention. That’s true even during tragic scenes, as when the idealistic Avory (BreeAna Eisel) mentions “every color of the rainbow” and Officer 726 wonders, “What’s a rainbow?”
It’s hard to hear those words without weeping, but at least someone remembers what a rainbow is and someone is willing to ask. Burbano may be down on dystopias, but she is a rare writer who can create a bleak future without fetishizing it. She has written a play with a soul worth decoding.
The Vertical City is available to stream through June 30. Ticket and production information here.