You probably shouldn’t read this write-up of Lifeline’s Theatre’s “Neverwhere,” a new staging of their 2010 adaptation from Robert Kauzlaric, and I’ll tell you why. It’s not often a production requires a convergence of nearly all the understudies, plus an understudy for an understudy who’s had maybe the luxury of a few hours’ advance notice, but this was the case. In all likelihood, this version of the show will never been seen again, but if you like a good story of triumph over adversity, read on!
There’s not enough love for the understudy in theatre settings, but they are so impressive. They’re memorized, ready, and often, they don’t get to add an artistic interpretation; they just get the task of recreating existing stage dynamics. It’s a little thankless. So, I’d like to pour a tub of Gatorade all over understudy actors like Ty Carter, Chris Hainsworth, Kim Fukawa and Scott Ray Merchant — who rolled with the punches with a script strapped to his arm! They all survived and excelled in the most inhospitable of all stage circumstances; they’re champions.
For anyone out of the loop, “Neverwhere” was originally a British television series and novel penned by Neil Gaiman in 1996, and the story translates to the stage with ease and ingenuity. Richard Mayhew (last minute pinch-hitter, Scott Ray Merchant) is a recent London transplant with a standard job and a high powered fiancée, Jessica (Michaela Petro). When he finds a wounded woman in the street and decides to give her a night’s shelter, he’s ushered against his will into London Below, a cut-throat underground society visible to members only. He has rescued noblewoman Lady Door (Samantha Newcomb), who is being hunted for her mystical unlocking capabilities. They win several intrepid allies to their cause: the Marquis De Carabas (Ty Carter, understudying) and Hunter (Kim Fukawa, understudying). They all must get to the Angel Islington (Chris Hainsworth, understudying) for answers, but there are murderous assassins like Mr. Vandemar (LaQuin Groves) and Mr. Croup (John Henry Roberts), stony Black Friars, seductive Velvets, and a hulking red-eyed beast between them and their destination.
I am a poor judge of what you’ll see and experience in performance of “Neverwhere” with the primary cast locked in, but I think there’s quite a bit of script and stage magic that would translate, no matter who is at the helm. The puppetry and creature work is incredible and thrilling, especially with the promise of a massive killer boar. The multimedia elements and atmospheric changes take us from subways to museum galleries, and convey a whole host of worlds and the daunting paths between them.
One sharp concern that came up for me was actor safety in relationship to a somewhat unforgiving set. Characters cavort on a suspended grid, climb a movable staircase, and sail through countless doors, all of which took some negotiating to work with safely. Designer Alan Donahue has crafted a set that is stunning to look at, but if pieces have the capacity to stick, slam, fall or break, it’ll make your audience terrified for all the wrong reasons.
For a piece of theatre with a generous helping of the male gaze, I have so much credit to give Samantha Newcomb as Door, and Michaela Petro as Jessica, playing the more-capable damsel and ball-busting significant other to the flailing male hero, respectively. They bring so much humor and gravity, and transcend what little substance was given to female characters coming along for a mid-nineties hero’s journey. Two other stand-outs are LaQuin Groves as Mr. Vandemar and John Henry Roberts as Mr. Croup, who are equal parts menacing and filled with rare assassin’s job dissatisfaction. Their gleeful and sardonic taunting is a joy.
Brand new artistic director Ilesa Duncan has done so much to bring actors of color and female voices to the forefront of a play that skewed heavily white and male in its original run. It’s a humorous and compelling piece of theater, no matter who steps in for the night.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Even absent the usual creatures, the show must go on.
DICE RATING: d10 — “Worth Going To”
Company: Lifeline Theatre
Venue: Lifeline Theatre (6912 N. Glenwood Ave.)