That was the problem facing playwright Rob Kauzlaric and director Paul Holmquist when they set out to adapt Neil Gaiman’s urban fantasy for the stage as part of Chicago’s Lifeline Theatre spring season.
Originally produced as a six part miniseries for the BBC, Neverwhere follows mild mannered office worker Richard Mayhew as one random act of kindness plunges him into a twisted quest through the otherside of London. Trying to help a mysterious young woman named Door, Richard is aided by and on the run from a motley mix of characters including a Machiavellian marquis, a mad earl, rat-worshipping cultists, tutelary dentists, and an underground angel. The series was later adapted into a novel by Gaiman, and a comic by Mike Carey with art by Glenn Fabry.
Holmquist and Kaulzaric faced unique problems in their own adaptation. Instead of six half-hour episode they had two hours. The TV series was shot on location in London. Lifeline’s stage is slightly larger than a broom cupboard. Oh, and only nine actors to portray some two dozen characters and a swathe of Londoners, sewer-folk, and market vendors.
Fortunately the Lifeline Theatre is almost tailor-made for Neverwhere. The company performs in a form Con-Ed building located down a side street and adjacent to a junkyard-cum-outdoor sculpture gallery, and the old firm of Kauzlaric and Holmquist have made adapting the unadaptable their stock in trade.
To whit, what the stage and set design lacks in width it makes up with height; and where resources (like time, space, and tube trains) are in short supply, it’s made up for with ingenuity and a determined and capable cast. A cluster of sewer pipes, circular scaffoldings, trapdoors, and hidden staircases make up the physical set; actors enter and exit from anywhere and everywhere. Much use is made of lighting to craft the mood and tone of scenes; from the buzzing fluorescents of Richard’s office job to the terrible holiness of the angel’s chamber. But when tricks and puppets (and oh yes, there are puppets) aren’t enough, and even when they are, the actors come through with a bottomless air of believable unbelievability.
Playwright Kauzlaric plays Mayhew as the hapless parallel to Katie McClean’s Door, the both of them thrust out of the security of their lives into a labyrinthine mystery. Following them with knives drawn are Sean Sinitski and Christopher Walsh as the murderers Croup and Vandemar , both played with such delightfully sinister relish you half-expect/half-hope for them to burst into a jolly song about the virtues of freestyle vivisection. Everyone’s favorite untrsutworthy rogue the Marquis DeCarabas races throughout the show, powered by the performance of Chris Hainsworth. Finishing off the cast, Phil Timberlake, Kyra Morris, Elise Kauzlaric, and Patrick Blashill manage to play the entire citizenries of Londons Above and Below; yet remarkably you never realize you’re essentially watching the same four people switch hats and accents.
Really it’s like watching Dave McKean produce a brilliant episode of Doctor Who with three people, a sock puppet, and the contents of a glove compartment; the anti-Avatar if you will.
While the original series got much out of filming in London itself, Lifeline’s Neverwhere positively thrives in the dreampunk pageantry born out of its limits. The script stays close enough to the book to give newcomers a good sense of Gaiman’s story, while there’s just enough reinvention to keep die-hard fans surprised and happy. After the lights have gone up and the applause has died down, Lifeline’s actors and production team have gone right to the core of Gaiman’s urban adventure: fast-paced weirdness that you hate to leave behind.
Neverwhere runs at Lifeline Theatre in Chicago through June 20th, 2010.
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