“Neverwhere” Is a Place You Should Visit
June 11, 2018
By Karen Topham
For its final production of this season, Lifeline Theatre is remounting its acclaimed 2010 hit, an original adaptation (by Robert Kauzlaric) of Neil Gaiman’s urban fantasy Neverwhere. Sadly, I never saw the original production; however, I will say that if it was as good as the current one, it definitely deserved the multiple Jeffs that it won. This is a wonderful adaptation and a wonderful production.
Adapting a work of speculative fiction is a difficult choice for any theatre, and Neverwhere is particularly difficult due to its many eclectic locations, its monsters, and the not-necessarily-very-visual power of one of its central characters: opening doors. That Lifeline succeeds on all counts is a tribute to Kauzlaric’s excellent script and director Ilesa Duncan, who takes the audience on a twisted, difficult journey under the streets of London for two and a half hours.
Neverwhere takes place, mostly, in “London Below,” a place underground where citizens who have “fallen through the cracks” in society live by a remarkably different set of rules from everyone in “London Above.” It is the home of magical people, an angel, a monstrous boar-creature, mysterious keys, people who talk with rats, and vampiric denizens who suck the life out of their victims. It is the home of a “floating market” that mysteriously appears and disappears in new locations every time. It is the home of two ancient, nearly unbeatable assassins. And, mostly, it is the home of all of the people whom the regular citizens of London just don’t wish to see anymore.
Alan Donohue’s set consists of pipes and boards and a movable staircase, along with walls that have within them enough hidden doors for any magical door-opener to employ herself. And that is what Door (Samantha Newcomb) must do both to stay alive and to complete her personal quest. Door is in danger from the first moments of the play, as the assassins (LaQuin Groves and John Henry Roberts), who have murdered the rest of her family, are coming for her as well. She manages to escape from them temporarily with the help of a kind London Above-dweller who actually sees her as she lies helpless on the street and decides to intercede. Richard Mayhew (Jose Nateras) is thus thrust into the middle of Door’s quest to learn why her family has been executed. Richard, the obligatory newcomer to whom everything needs to be explained, plays a role similar to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz: he is far from home with no apparent way of getting back in a place he does not understand, but he grows beyond himself as he continually helps the people he finds there.
The talented nine-member cast play 25 different characters in this fast-moving, complex production. Most notable among the rest are Matthew Singleton as the mysterious Marquis de Carabas; Aneisa Hicks as Hunter, a nearly superhuman Beast-killer that Door hires as a bodyguard; Dave Skvarla as Old Bailey, a merchant who plays a couple of important parts in the story; Michael Reyes as the Angel Islington, who once failed to protect Atlantis from flooding; and Michaela Petro as Lamia, the white-haired guide with a secret agenda. The entire ensemble is excellent; Duncan could not have asked for a better cast.
Also notable are the lighting design by Becca Jeffords, the sound design by Andrew Hansen, and the puppets designed by Mike Oleon, including very realistic rats and pigeons as well as that gigantic boar. The lighting, which is not only for time passage and effect but also is a critical part of the set design, is impeccable, and Hansen’s sound includes what seems like the nearly constant muttering of the dispossessed, as well as some terrific music. It all comes together brilliantly.
But the show rises or falls on the back of Nateras. Richard is a kind of everyman, the hard worker that no one really knows or understands whose richer inner life is symbolized by the troll dolls on his desk. He does not deserve to have his entire life whisked from beneath him, but his kindness in helping a stranger (Door) hastens its collapse. (Twice we are told that a good heart is unlikely to get anyone through the turmoil of life.) When he first arrives in London Below, Richard is shaken by everything he encounters. But he has the stuff of greatness within him, and Nateras’s performance allows us both to see his character change and to make this accidental voyager into the tale’s hero. If we don’t care about Richard, the whole play collapses, but Nateras makes sure that doesn’t happen.
As Door, Newcomb has a different job. Door’s ability makes her both powerful and hunted. It also could render the character a bit static; after her frantic opening, Door essentially leads Richard on a harrowing journey around the Below. But in Newcomb’s capable hands, Door manages to become as sympathetic as Richard, and she has several really effective moments as the action plays out. One very early example is her decision to take him with her in the first place. Newcomb is very expressive as the gears in her head turn and she realizes that his plight is all her fault. Between the two of them, Nateras and Newcomb make a great protagonist duo.
Yet another play that seems almost to have been written for our distorted times, Neverwhere tackles the key question of how society deals with its outcasts, and the answer (as it surely is in our current political state) is not very well. Neverwhere says that we completely ignore them and they vanish into the cracks. Of course, reality is more malevolent, as many among us play the role of the assassins here, seeking out the “different” people in order to destroy them. As allegory, Gaiman’s tale works even better than it did when he wrote it. As theatre, Kauzlaric’s adaptation keeps the audience riveted, doing Gaiman proud. Due to something having to do with rights, this will be the last production ever of this script; do yourself a favor and don’t miss it.
From Chicago Theatre Review
Falling Between the Cracks
June 5, 2018
By Colin Douglas
One night Richard Mayhew, a young Scottish office worker, discovers Door, an injured young woman lying alone on the street, covered in blood. Much to the chagrin of his snooty fiancee, Richard abandons Jessica to carry the wounded girl to his nearby apartment. Suddenly his mundane, work-a-day life turns into an incredibly implausible adventure, played out far below the streets of London. Thus, with an innocent act of kindness, Richard sets into motion one of the most exciting, unexpected adventures he could’ve ever imagined.
Based upon the popular adult urban fantasy by British author Neil Gaiman (American Gods, The Sandman, Coraline), this, his first solo work, originally appeared as a novelization of his own 1996 BBC teleplay. Gaiman twice revised the novel and it’s always remained a bestseller among readers of sci-fi and fantasy. The story is set in “London Below,” a magical, parallel universe that exists within the sewers and tunnels of the city. Richard Mayhew accompanies Door, his mysterious new friend, helping her survive against a world of fanciful, freakish monsters and hired assassins.
Eight years ago Lifeline Theatre ensemble member Robert Kauzlaric adapted Gaiman’s book into a Jeff Award-winning play. His work, which was both a critical and commercial success, continues to be produced internationally and throughout the United States. This new Chicago production, directed by Pegasus Theatre Artistic Director, Ilesa Duncan, brings Gaiman’s fantasy back to Chicago in a breathtaking, new production. Fans of Gaiman’s novel will not be disappointed and those who’ve never read the book will become new aficionados. Focusing her presentation of what it means to fall between the cracks, Duncan asks audiences to look at non-conformably perceived individuals, whether differently-abled, identified, gendered or hued, and to judge them on their own merits. This theme of acceptance particularly resonates in our contemporary world, especially in 21st century America, and is a big part of this play.
Ms. Duncan’s ensemble cast is the definition of versatility. With only a few exceptions, every actor portrays a slew of different characters. Jose Nateras makes a very likable hero as Richard Mayhew. The actor’s mastery of his Scottish accent is strong and consistent, without overpowering his lines. Nateras demonstrates a cunning talent for both verbal and physical humor, while managing, like most of his cast mates, to handle the wild stage violence that appears throughout this play (designed by R&D Choreography). Powerful actress Samantha Newcomb plays Door with dignity and physical dexterity. She manages to make the orphaned young woman sympathetic and likable while still portraying a kickass kid who won’t take any guff from anyone.
Leading her ensemble, Duncan has cast two incredibly gifted actors as the villainous, yet hilarious, Mr. Vandemar and Mr. Croup. The giant, brutish talent of LaQuin Groves balances beautifully with the quietly evil, intellectual manipulations of John Henry Roberts. Both actors easily morph into the company, but stand out as these two repugnant rapscallions. Matthew Singleton makes a very dignified, enigmatic Marquis de Carabas, while also playing a variety of other smaller roles. Dave Skvarla is delightfully funny as Old Bailey, the Master of Earl’s Court, and others. Aneisa Hicks is a frightening, commanding Hunter, as well as playing one of Richard’s silly coworkers. Michael Reyes gets to demonstrate what a chameleon of an actor he is as Islington, the Angel, as well as Richard’s nerdy office buddy, and several other characters. And Michaela Petro is very good as Jessica, while also creating an evil, sensuous vampire called Lamia.
In addition to Ilesa Duncan’s fine direction and energetic staging, this production features a pliably adaptable scenic design by Alan Donahue, enhanced by Michelle Underwood’s startling mobile projections, all lit with mystical majesty by Becca Jeffords. Andrew Hansen’s sound design and original music add yet another layer of polish to this production and Aly Renee Amidei’s costumes easily enable the cast to master the demands of each character.
This is a wonderful production, especially for fans of Neil Gaiman’s sublime, unique version of Alice’s Adventures Underground. Audiences looking for the perfect escapist comic drama, filled with action and adventure, should look no further than the current drama playing at this jewel of Rogers Park. Ilesa Duncan’s terrific production is a bracing, breathtaking good time that’s the theatrical equivalent of a great summer beach read. Just be careful of falling between the cracks.
From Chicago Theater Beat
Dark and fierce ‘Neverwhere’ a can’t-miss epic fantasy
June 18, 2018
By Lauren Whalen
Neil Gaiman is a phenomenon for a reason: his stories contain a flawless blend of the fantastical and the deeply human. Neverwhere is no different, with its sky-high stakes, compelling characters of all shapes and sizes, and intriguing philosophy. According to the program notes, Robert Kauzlaric first adapted Gaiman’s novel for the Lifeline stage in 2010, and that production toured the States, Canada, Ireland and the UK. Last year, Kauzlaric learned that Neverwhere’s rights had been sold in such a way that he’ll no longer be able to produce the script, and thus, its final production (with a new team of collaborators) closes Lifeline’s 2017-18 season. A rich urban fantasy with a phenomenal cast, Neverwhere challenges us to think beyond the day-to-day and embrace the unknown.
Neverwhere opens with Door (Samantha Newcomb), a young woman with magical powers, running from two assassins, the witty but deadly Mr. Croup (John Henry Roberts) and Mr. Vandemar (LaQuin Groves). Aboveground in London, Richard Mayhew (Jose Nateras) struggles with the endless paperwork of his day job and the incessant demands of his fiancée Jessica (Michaela Petro). Door wants to know why her family has been murdered, and Richard wants…well, he doesn’t know what he wants, and that’s a huge problem. When Door and Richard’s paths cross, things get interesting. And when they meet Hunter (Aneisa Hicks), a stoic and fierce bodyguard with an agenda of her own, the real adventure begins.
Lifeline Theatre is known for its stellar literary adaptations (the book that the production is based on is always on sale in the lobby), and this season has been especially stunning. From the silly and fun Sylvester to the gorgeous and tragic Anna Karenina to this Neverwhere, there’s been something for anyone and everyone. Neverwhere deftly plumbs the depths of the human imagination to ask the tough questions: who are we? What do we want? What price do we pay for our everyday lives? By dividing a major metropolis into the aboveground and the underground, Gaiman (and adaptor Kauzlaric) are able to fully realize the potential for simple kindness and depraved evil, and it’s beautiful to watch. Ilesa Duncan’s direction is intelligent and respectful, giving each character room to grow (and in some cases, to fully reveal just how far they’ll go to win).
While I wish Alan Donahue’s set design had gone a little more creative than Lifeline’s standard two levels, the rest of Neverwhere’s production values are spot-on. Michelle Underwood’s projections go a long way in establishing the seedy yet magical London underground, and Aly Renee Amidel’s costumes are vivid and whimsical. As always, Lifeline boasts an ensemble of gifted and diverse actors. Standouts include Roberts and Groves’ natty and nefarious hit men, Matthew Singleton as the charismatic and duplicitous Marquis de Carabas, and the power trio of Newcomb, Nateras and Hicks, who deftly fight, explore and love without ever holding back. Neverwhere is a can’t-miss epic fantasy with deep meaning and dark humor, a fitting tribute to Gaiman and his boundless creativity.
London Below: A Review of Neverwhere at Lifeline Theatre
June 13, 2018
By Emma Couling
There’s are few things so radical and joyful in 2018 as a wild adventure story whose heroes are all women and men of color. “Neverwhere” at Lifeline Theatre is a beautiful example of one such experience. Directed by Pegasus Theatre executive artistic director Ilesa Duncan, “Neverwhere” is a trippy romp into the London underground of Gaiman’s imagination.
After performing a random and fateful act of kindness, Richard Mayhew (Jose Nateras) finds himself embroiled in the mystical underground world of his new friend Lady Door (Samantha Newcomb) who can make entrances where none previously existed. Accompanied by an ambitious Marquis de Carabas (Matthew Singleton) and an unmitigated badass of a bodyguard named Hunter (a stunning performance by Aneisa Hicks), Door and Richard fight a pair of immortal assassins (brilliantly performed by John Henry Roberts and the consistently hilarious LaQuin Groves) to find the person responsible for the deaths of Door’s family.
As lovely as the production is generally, the scenic design by Alan Donahue is the real star of the show. A labyrinthine series of scaffolding, pipes, boards, ladders and (of all the brilliant things) a fireman’s pole work in concert with a stunning projections design [from Michelle Underwood]. Every level, step, and pole is utilized by directors and performers so you never know quite where to look next.
“Neverwhere” is not the most revolutionary piece of theater in the world though perhaps watching it will help you remember to be kinder and more thoughtful to people are less fortunate than you. But it is powerful in its representation and joyful in its fantasy.
From Picture This Post
Reviving The 2010 Adventure into Underground London
June 5, 2018
By Lauren Katz
What do you do when you are presented with a door to an adventure? Do you remain with the familiar, or do you take the jump? How do you begin to navigate a life that will never again feel the same?
Lifeline Theatre Revives 2010 Production of Neverwhere
Adapted from Neil Gaiman’s novel by Lifeline Ensemble Member Robert Kauzlaric and directed by Ilesa Duncan, Neverwhere follows Richard Mayhew (portrayed by Jose Nateras, who adds an appropriately awkward charm to the character), an average Londoner with a dead-end job and a fiancé, Jessica (Michaela Petro), who takes advantage of his push-over nature. Richard is ready to accept his fate until Lady Door (Samantha Newcomb, offering a strong counterpart to Nasteras’ Richard) literally falls into his path. He makes the choice to act out of kindness and help her – a choice that changes his life forever. Suddenly he not only discovers that there is a whole shadow world beneath the London he knows, but also that the choice to help Door has ripped him from the life he knows and trapped him down below.
Accompanied by Hunter (played with a fantastic dead pan humor by Anesia Hicks) and the Marquis de Carabas (portrayed with spot-on comedic timing by Matthew Singleton), Richard decides to follow Lady Door on an adventure that he only hopes can return him back to his normal life rather than end it completely. The question is, if he ever makes it back, will he want to return to the average? Or will that taste of adventure make a new man out of him? Richard and Door are brought together by fate and come to realize that they will need each other to find the answers that they seek and overcome the obstacles that face them below, including the partner assassins Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar (John Henry Roberts and LaQuin Groves – who offer hilarious performances and a fantastic stage chemistry).
Kauzlaric’s adaptation accurately captures the essence of Gaiman’s novel with an added level of dark humor, and Duncan cleverly brings the piece to life in collaboration with her artistic team. Scenic and Properties Designer Alan Donahue (Lifeline Ensemble Member) creates an abstract structure that successfully transports the audience both to the upper and lower levels of London. The space is filled with staircases and scaffolding that the actors can use to reach great heights or the depths of the space, which allows Duncan to help emphasize all of the mysterious levels of the city.
Projections Designer Michelle Underwood fills in the gaps that the set cannot reach, particularly in highlighting the vastness of London’s dark underground, as well as Richard’s dream sequences. After Richard meets Door, he starts to dream about the shadow world that is starting to grab him, and Underwood projects the images flashing through Richard’s mind, adding an exciting layer to the scene.
Finally, Lighting Designer Becca Jeffords completes the picture through adding a frightening air to the room, and allowing the audience to feel the darkness that the characters describe through a mix of greens and purples that add shadows to the room.
In addition to the large structure, Donahue includes multiple doors throughout the set. Lady Door has the magical ability to open doorways, and that plot point plays an important role in her adventure with Richard. Donahue’s doorways help emphasize that element, but also creates a fun extra layer to Duncan’s staging.
One example occurs right at the beginning of the play when we are introduced to Richard’s work life. He sits at a desk that pulls out from the wall, and his coworkers walk through a revolving door adding piles and piles of work to his plate. Eventually his fiancé is added to the mix, and she walks out to order him further. The revolving door adds humor, but also helps play into the larger theme of individuals controlling Richard’s life in a manner in which he can barely control until Door enters the play and drastically alters the pattern. The use of doorways at the beginning sets the audience up for a motif that occurs throughout, adding further mystery to the play with the knowledge that any character could enter at any point.
Full of adventure and humor, Neverwhere certainly makes for a fun-filled evening.