You have a good heart, and sometimes it’s enough to see you through life, but mostly it’s not. A riveting urban fantasy from fiction-writer mastermind Neil Gaiman comes to life on the stage as Rorschach Theatre presents the area premier of Neverwhere, adapted for the stage by Robert Kauzlaric. Directed by Jenny McConnell Frederick, this visually stunning production delivers a tried and true justice to the phantasmagorical magnificence that is Gaiman’s work. A brilliantly haunting tale with cracks of sparkling magic woven seamless into every element of the production, it’s the most mystifying show you’ll see all season.
Robert Kauzlaric’s adaptation with Frederick’s direction truly captures the enchanted essence of Gaiman’s tale; bringing the wonder of his characters and setting to vivacious life through carefully crafted and flawlessly executed design elements. Fans not only of Gaiman’s work but of fantasy and magical realism in general will thoroughly appreciate this production. A nod is well deserved to Vocal and Dialect Coach Jenna Berk for the intense sounds created by the mostly British (and one Scottish) accents coming from the actors. Varying from cockney poor to prim and proper, the audience is treated to a myriad of well-executed accents thanks to Berk’s work.
Scenic Designer David C. Ghatan does not simply create a set for this production, he imagines an underland— the London Below— as detailed in Gaiman’s story, and brings it to fruition. The multi-tiered space creates stunning illusions of levels of the sewers and world below London proper that are then set against the perimeters of the space. Ghatan keeps the dreary macabre color scheme that gives the landscape that edgy feeling of danger. It’s visually astonishing, every seat in the house offering a different viewpoint of the show because of Ghatan’s approach; choosing to allow the characters’ paths to bisect the audience in numerous way.
Working with Ghatan to enhance the aural element of the show’s production is Sound Designer Veronica J. Lancaster. Creating a breathing, pulsating soundscape that starts pre-show and echoes throughout various scenes during the production, Lancaster ensnares the senses. The constant squeaking of critters flushed against the dis-rhythmic plopping sounds of something dripping from above; that series of sounds overlaid on the constant electrical humming as if the London Below was a living entity, the noise its life and energy.
Rounding out the perfection on the creative team is Lighting Designer Cory Ryan Frank who hones in on stellar moments in the production by plunging the audience into a bone-chilling blackout for the Night’s Bridge scene. Frank uses brutal red-blood floods for scenes ripe with carnage and crafts the illusion of the Beast of London in abstract darkness. Combined with the design efforts of Ghatan and Lancaster, this trio triumphs in making this a truly sensational production.
Director Jenny McConnell Frederick gathers a dozen of the area’s finest performers to breathe exuberant life into Gaiman’s unique characters. The floating market scene is a calamity of chaotic costumes and personalities drifting amid the throng of magic and music. Frederick’s execution of the production as a whole is a wild success; the play keeping the audience on the edge of their seats as they tumble down the modern yet dangerous rabbit hole of sorts.
With a dozen actors playing nearly 30 characters it is incredible to witness the level of talent exuded and the clean crisp margins between each of the character creations. While a handful of the performers only take on one role, the role is major that it would be impossible to imagine them doing anything else. Each character crafted in the production is done so with clear intentions and passionate talent pumped into it.
In a world called ‘London Below’ one can only imagine the unfathomable depths of dodgy characters that one might encounter. The Velvet Children, in this case, child Lamia (Liz Osborn), a frightfully sensual soul-sucking cold girl. Osborn speaks with a haunted sound reminiscent of unearthly possession, her movements languid yet purposeful. Osborn’s enigmatic nature makes her treacherous ways that much more detrimental.
A horrifyingly dynamic portrayal is presented by the angel Islington (Cam Magee). Without elaborating too much on her character for fear of giving away everything that is holy and sacred, it can be said that Magee gives a breathtaking dual performance in this role, flawlessly juxtaposing the two opposing faces of her character. Her speech pattern alone is serene yet foreboding, enthralling yet frightening.
Two more unsavory characters you will not find in the London Below than the hired assassins, who do not come cheap, mind you, than Mr. Croup (Colin Smith) and Mr. Vandemar (Ryan Tumulty). Ruthlessly diabolical in their nature they also provide hints of a dark-humored comedy in the show. Smith plays the brains of the operation while Tumulty is the more gruesome of the ghouls, slow of mind but quick to brutalize. The pair send shivers of a nature most foul shooting up your spine and will certainly make you think twice before crossing an alleyway at night alone. Smith and Tumulty are the perfect pair for these vicious villainous vamps of the night.
Providing comedy, which is occasionally off-handed and sarcastic by nature, Scott McCormick takes on three roles of note, including the peculiar Old Bailey, the off-kilter Abbot, and the foolish Earl. With slumbering senility wrapped into his Earl character, McCormick brings enchantment and disquiet to the role; an intriguingly unique way to balance this self-proclaimed royal. McCormick carries all of his characters with a clear presence and commanding effect to the stage, even with dithering and blithering about as Old Bailey.
Getting down to the final four brings into focus Hunter (Jennifer Knight). The lone word that comes to mind is rogue. Followed by brave, or perhaps foolishly fearless, it’s difficult to say once watching her character in action. Knight embodies the character with a forceful nature, dagger-like tongue and rigid yet powerful physicality. Her manner of speaking draws sharp focus on every word she says. Beware.
The irreverently salty pirate and dodgiest of dodgers is brought forth in The Marquis de Carabas (Grady Weatherford). Embodying a character halfway between a vagabond and a pirate, with hints of class of know-how thrown in for good measure, Weatherford delivers comic zingers, often laced hard with deadpan and sarcasm. Truly an instrumental piece in advancing the plot through inconceivable plot twists, Weatherford owns this character and keeps all eyes on him, especially when it comes to his physical expressions of anguish, and his priceless comic timing.
That leaves only Door (Sarah Taurchini) and Richard Mayhew (Daniel Corey). One ordinary man from London above and one Opener from London Below. Taurchini and Corey build a brilliant chemistry on stage between them, starting out first as strangers and growing rapidly into a deep friendship that truly tests the bonds of time. Taurchini is grounded in her portrayal of the female protagonist, her voice finding great emotional depth in all of her lines.
Corey as the male protagonist has amazing facial features as well as a genuine comprehension on how to emote honest confusion. Every moment he discovers something unbelievable and fantastical in London Below is clearly expressed as if he truly is meeting it for the first time. His overall emotional growth as a character is stunning; Corey does Gaiman’s anti-hero protagonist a great deal of heroic justice.
Come along to Rorschach Theatre’s journey to London Below, but I would watch out for doors!
Running Time: Approximately three hours, with one intermission.
Neverwhere plays through September 15, 2013 at Rorschach Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center — 1333 H Street NE in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993, or purchase them online.