Playwright: Robert Kauzlaric, adapted from the book by Neil Gaiman
At: Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave. Tickets: $20-40; 773-761-4477; Lifelinttheatre.com; Runs through: July 15
Adapting a work of speculative fiction is difficult for any theater, and Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, first produced by Lifeline Theatre in 2010, 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 adapter Robert Kauzlaric's spot-on script and director Ilesa Duncan, who takes the audience on a twisted, difficult journey.
Neverwhere takes place, mostly, in "London Below," a place underground where citizens who have "fallen through the cracks" in society live. 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. Door ( Samantha Newcomb ), though, 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 Natarus ) is thus thrust into the middle of Door's quest to learn why her family has been executed.
The show rises or falls on the back of Natarus. Richard does not deserve to have his entire life whisked from beneath him, but his kindness in helping a stranger ( Door ) hastens its collapse. 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. Newcomb, though, makes Door as sympathetic as Richard. Between the two of them, Natarus and Newcomb make a great protagonist duo.
The other members of the ensemble ( Aneisa Hicks, Michaela Petro, Michael Reyes, Matthew Singleton, and Dave Skvarla ) are just as solid. Also notable is 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 a gigantic boar. It all comes together brilliantly.
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 asserts that we completely ignore them. 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.