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Perhaps the highest praise a critic can give to Rorschach Theatre’s production of Neverwhere is to point out that last Sunday’s matinee was sold out. On a gorgeous, low-humidity afternoon, 140 people wove their ways through a darkened tunnel constructed in a black-box theater and took their seats in a seedy, rat-infested reproduction of London’s underbelly.
Having attended other Rorschach productions with fewer than a dozen people in the audience, I’m confident that the Sunday-afternoon sellout indicates Rorschach has a well-deserved hit on its hands. The troupe specializes in plays with a fantastical bent—recent efforts include Greek myths, dystopian family dramas, and an adaptation of a Haruki Murakami story. Now English bestseller Neil Gaiman has gotten the Rorschach treatment, and the result is a high-caliber page-to-stage adventure from one of D.C.’s smaller theater companies.
Neverwhere was originally a 1996 BBC television series, and Gaiman wrote the novel after the teleplays. This stage version premiered in Chicago in 2010 and is a faithful adaptation that preserves Gaiman’s wry, drink-your-tea-before-you-die dialogue. It also gives imaginative directors plenty of leeway to create an infinite world in a finite space, which is exactly what Jenny McConnell Frederick has done at Atlas Performing Arts Center.
The play is performed nearly in the round, with audience members seated on risers arranged in two half-circles. Platforms, catwalks, and ladders rim the theater, allowing some of the action to take place above and behind the viewers’ heads. Tech rehearsals must’ve gone on for days, but the combination of creative blocking, lighting, and sound effects do indeed convince viewers that these characters are crossing perilous bridges, falling into chasms, and splashing through sewers.
Daniel Corey stars as Richard Mayhew, a junior Scottish stockbroker and general good bloke who collects trolls at his desk and is always late filing paperwork. One night while out with his Pippa Middleton–perfect fiancée, Richard stops to help an injured homeless girl. His act of compassion gets him caught up in the fantastical world of “London Below.” To say the denizens of this alternate universe are “a bit dodgy,” as Richard does initially, is an understatement. Eight of the actors play multiple characters and do marvelous work changing costumes and personae. Scott McCormick is particularly entertaining as a besotted birdseller, a French earl of the Tube, and a mysterious abbot who takes a Polaroid of Richard and serves him a proper cuppa before sending him out to face a near-death ordeal.
Colin Smith and Ryan Tumulty play assassins modeled after Fagin and Alfred P. Doolittle, but with meat cleavers. The play is a splendid choice for older children, though be aware that the actors do use those cleavers, and there are (fake) entrails involved when they do. Gaiman fans will leave thrilled they’ve seen their favorite tome or BBC series fleshed out so thoroughly. But fans of books alone don’t sell out theaters: Brilliant, 3D productions do.