Staging Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere by Greg Baldino

Robert Kauzlaric, playwright and lead, playing Richard Mayhew.

This spring, Chicago Above will become London Below as the Lifeline Theatre brings Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere to life as a stage play.

Originally produced as a six episode BBC miniseries in the late nineties, Neverwhere follows a self-admitted “boring” office worker as a chance act of kindness plunges him into the strange other side of London and into the company of a shady Marquis, an itinerant pigeon salesman; and a young woman with a very unusual ability and a very dead family.

The story has been retold as a prose novel and a comic book miniseries, the latter adapted by Mike Carey and Glenn Fabry for Vertigo, but this represents the first time in over a decade that Gaiman’s modern classic of urban fantasy has been performed in a major theater city. Just as with its previous incarnations, Lifeline’s production promises to be a unique reimagining of the world of secret subway stations and metropolitan wordplay.

The production began when Rob Kauzlaric was first handed the book by a friend. “I was moved and taken to a different place,” says Kauzlaric. On viewing the miniseries, he appreciated the realism of the production- which was shot on location throughout London- but thought it lacked the “transportative magic” of the book. He began writing on a stage adaptation almost as soon as he had finished the book.

A seasoned writer of adaptations, Kauzlaric has brought many books to the stage, including Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau; the latter with his Neverwhere collaborator, director Paul Holmquist. In regards to telling the stories of others, especially that of Gaiman, he relies on his medium for creative retelling. “The dialogue is brilliant,” says the playwright, “I don’t want to put a twist on Niel’s dialogue; but rather bring the story to the format.”

Adds director and fellow Gaiman fan Holmquist, “We’ve been diving into the archetypal with this production. We wanted to go in to reverse-engineer the source material to find what inspired these characters. The Marquis is of course a trickster character, and all quest stories have a journey through darkness.”

Taking a story set across an entire city and recasting it on a single stage is no east task, but Holmquist is confident in Lifeline’s undertaking. “We don’t have to create a literal interpretation of the architectural landscape.” The company has a history of epic productions; past adaptations have created everything from Middle Earth to the Battle of Gettysburg on a single stage.

Populating the vast setting are a number of larger than life characters, played by Lifeline’s seasoned players. Sean Sinitski and Christopher M. Walsh play the delightfully horrible murderers Croup and Vandemar, who pursue the enigmatic Door, played by Katie McLean. For her allies, Chris Hainsworth steps into the coattails of the untrustworthy Marquis de Carabas; and Kauzlaric himself takes on the heroic lead of Richard Mayhem, giving himself no excuse for not remembering his lines.

Lifeline will also bring even more of the story to life, as the company will be recreating Neverwhere‘s famous Floating Market for their 27th anniversary benefit. The event promises fortunes told and dreams sold, with over a dozen performances including Pyrotechniq, and the Tribal Belly Dance Company; as well as food, drink and bodyguard auditions. The benefit goes to support Lifeline’s work, including their summer and winter drama camps and special workshops for kids.

Lifeline Theatre‘s production of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere premieres May 10 and the Floating Market Benefit will take place on April 19 at the Chicago Cultural Center.

Greg Baldino is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

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