Rorschach Theatre’s “Neverwhere”

NeverwhereI’ve been a theater nerd ever since I was a kid in high school. (Insert your “drama club dork” insults here.) I’m not really active in that scene anymore, but I still enjoy going to see a show, and like to tell people about it when I come across one that’s particularly good. So allow me to recommend Rorschach Theatre’s production of Neverwhere, which I caught last night.

Neverwhere is an adaptation of a story by Neil Gaiman, which appeared first as a BBC miniseries and then as a novel and a radio drama. (The last of which had an extremely nerd-friendly cast, including Benedict Cumberbatch and Natalie Dormer.) It’s a sprawling fantasia about a London businessman, Richard Mayhew, whose act of kindness toward an injured girl named Door he finds on the street takes him beyond everyday London to the subterranean realm of “London Below,” where people who have “fallen through the cracks” scratch out a living alongside angels and monsters. He finds that the only way to get back to “London Above” is to help Door find those who had wronged her and her family; but the underground world is perilous, and powerful forces seek to stop Door from uncovering the truth. Both Richard and Door must decide how far they are willing to go, how much they are willing to give up, in order to get what they think they want.

I’m familiar with Gaiman’s work, but I hadn’t encountered Neverwhere in any of its other incarnations, so I was a bit worried going into Rorschach’s production that it would fall into the all-too-common trap of adaptations and essentially be fan service — something that would only make sense if you were already familiar with the original. Happily, that was not the case; Rorschach’s version is terrifically enjoyable standing on its own two feet. The dream-logic of London Below is communicated clearly and efficiently, and you never find yourself scratching your head wondering why characters are doing what they are doing.

The performances were uniformly strong as well. Richard (played by Daniel Corey) and Door (Sarah Taurchini) are presented with understated gravity, while supporting characters like underworld assassins Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar (Colin Smith and Ryan Tumulty), and the flamboyant Marquis de Carabas (Grady Weatherford) take more outsized, comic turns. The combination is effective in putting the audience in Richard’s shoes as he tries to understand the strange dynamics between the stranger people he has suddenly found himself among.

As a theater nerd (see above), I was especially struck by the creativity of the set design. Rorschach is mounting the show in a typical black box theater, which are great spaces for shows with simple staging requirements; but Neverwhere, which takes its characters across a fictional city, would not seem at first glance to be particularly simple. But the company works around that with clever use of the available space. The audience is seated in the round, but with aisles cut through the seats leading back to corners of the space, allowing the actors to make dramatic entrances and exits just by dashing up and down the aisles. And the walls of the space are fortified with risers at various heights, allowing them to traverse the theater by clambering up ladders and down chutes. The result is that a space that you’d think would be more suited to static drawing-room dramas feels broad, open and kinetic; the show runs nearly three hours, but there’s so much going on at such velocity that it never loses its momentum. Smart lighting and sound design add to the effect as well.

The only thing I can think to ding them on is that the acoustics in the space aren’t great, and since characters are all over the place, sometimes it can be hard to hear what they’re saying if they’re on the other side of the theater from you. That’s a minor complaint, though — there was never a time when I flat-out couldn’t hear a line, just a few times when I had to work harder to do so than I’d have liked. It’s probably inevitable given the space, though. As someone who learned the ropes by having a high school drama club advisor shout “PROJECTION! PROJECTION!” at me from the back row, I feel their pain.

So, anyway: it’s a very good show. (And don’t just take my word for it — the Washington Post liked it too.) If you’re in DC, you should go see it. Tickets are available here. It’s in its last week before closing, but there’s five more shows between now and then, so you have plenty of chances to catch it before it too vanishes into London Below. And if you’re like me, once you’ve seen it, you’ll be adding Rorschach Theatre to your list of DC theater companies to watch.