Neverwhere – As Above So Below
*This is The Bad Oracle’s “staff pass” disclosure: someone involved in this production is a member of the staff of The Bad Oracle. The individual did not write or participate in writing this review. This is an exception to our usual disclaimer, which is why it is here.
First of all, I’d like to apologize for this review coming a little late. Sometimes, to be really honest with you, I kind of have to calm down about something before I can think about it critically. And I am pretty fucking excited, in many ways, about Cohesion’s Neverwhere. I’m going to warn you that I can be a HUGE nerd when it comes to fantasy/sci-fi, and looking at specific aspects of fantasy/sci-fi that may make you roll your eyes. If that’s the case, well. I once wrote a twelve page paper examining gender in canonical fantasy novels, specifically Neverwhere, and you’re lucky I’m not reprinting it here (or unlucky, depending on how big a nerd you are about this stuff).
It doesn’t surprise me that director Brad Norris is such a fan of Neverwhere. It never surprises me when white guys in their mid-thirties (not to drag Norris at all, but that’s just the T) are extremely into this type of work, because it’s literally written for them. As a woman who loves the genre, it’s a little different. It’s not that girls are never the ones who fall through the cracks, or down the rabbit hole, or follow the second star to the right, straight on ’till morning. It’s that, once they get there, their agency evaporates and their intention often becomes very traditionally gendered. Men/boys, the Arthur Dents, the Richard Mayhews, the Harry Potters, the Bilbos, no matter how ordinary they are, often get to dominate. They fight. They grow into kings. They become warriors. They defeat. They conquer. They are the Boy That Lived. John fights pirates, Wendy fights diaper rash. Meg flies through the galaxy, but she doesn’t kill a great mythical beast or rule a distant planet. She wants to find her father, reunite her family and try to regulate her temper. Gaiman’s own Coraline also goes through the tunnel to save her parents and put her broken family back together. And Dorothy, of course, just wants to go home.
It isn’t that there aren’t awesome women characters, it’s just that they often are there to assist the hero on his power quest (Trillian) or to be the Damsel in Distress (Buttercup, The Childlike Empress) or exist as expressly evil (The Wicked Witch, The White Witch, The Red Queen). This is not universally true, of course (Narnia springs to mind, all the children eventually grow into king and queens there). But it’s present enough, often enough, to remark on. There has been, recently, a push to write and produce work that talks back to these stereotypes, but Neverwhere, unfortunately, ain’t that. Richard Mayhew (Joseph Coracle) is the ultimate anyguy. Burdened with an uninspiring job and a shrewish fiancee, his salvation comes in the form of a bleeding girl, lying on the sidewalk. She is Door (Cori Dioquino), one of the denizens of London Below, a shadow city that exists under the “upworld” of actual London. Door is an “opener”, a formerly great family of individuals who can open, well, almost anything. She’s unfortunately being pursed by two real unsavory types named Mr. Croup (Matthew Payne) and Mr. Vandemar (Bobby Henneberg). Richard becomes sucked into Door’s world, where he meets colorful characters like The Ratspeakers (Melanie Glickman, Danielle Vitullo and Zoe DiGorgio), a Marquis (Jonas David Grey), an Earl (Frank Mancino) and a bad-ass bodyguard with a stick named Hunter (Cassandra Dutt). Along the way, of course, he saves the day and learns a little something about himself in the bargain. Maybe you don’t have to guess if he returns to his humdrum “ordinary” life. Maybe you don’t.
I don’t want to sound unnecessarily harsh, here, because Neverwhere is an awesome story. Gaiman is talented, and his characters are weird and wonderful. I love the piece, actually, and you have to most critically look what you love, because your heart is biased. I was jaw-droppingly astonished at the scope of this production, especially for a small theater company like Cohesion. It’s a beast. Neverwhere was a genuine risk, and I will ALWAYS applaud a genuine risk. But, of course, it’s especially sweet to do so when it fucking pays off as hard as this. Norris is a director who keeps you on the edge of your seat. His style is clearly organic and, just when you think the whole thing is going to fly apart, that it’s made of rusty nails and old glue and ohmygodtheyaregoingtofall, he pulls back and shows you that he’s got it. I think one of the things that makes this kind of direction infuriatingly hard to replicate is that it comes from a natural ability to trust what is going to happen. This approach doesn’t always work, true (the Floating Market scene feels too improvisational and should be reworked, it takes the show from pleasingly loose to weirdly messy, particularly the imprecision of the audience interaction). But when it does, it does. Take the transitions, for instance The transitions shouldn’t be good. They involve these gigantic steel and wooden boxes that the actors strain to push and crash around. The entire process looks like demolition derby. So then, why is it graceful? Why does something that should feel labored feel so fascinating to watch? Because Norris knows it’s going to be okay. He knows the boxes will land. He’s done the research, he’s done the worrying and then, he lets it go. He trusts what will happen. The result is something that you don’t really think is dangerous, but drops your stomach anyway. It’s exhilarating.
And it leads to some really exciting performance from a very well cast cast. Coracle does an exceedingly credible bumble (and yes, Scottish accent, at least to my ear) as Richard Mayhew. He’s every everyman, sure, but he manages to extract some fairly deep meaning from the character, too. At one point, Mayhew confronts all the horrible things he secretly thinks are true about himself. The way that Coracle just crumples to the floor during this “ordeal”, his face lovable, adorable, but painfully and grimly set, is wonderful. Dioquino’s matter-of-fact, yet heartbreakingly vulnerable, approach to Door elevates the character from Manic Pixie Helpmate to living, breathing flesh. Watch her as she is suddenly confronted with her dead father’s study. I wanted to reach out my hand and touch her, that’s how emotionally available she is. I’ve seen Jonas David Grey perform multiple times, and I am usually struck by the precision of his work. Here, playing the mysterious Marquis, Grey lets go a bit. His physicality is loose, yet confident. And the way he fucking throws himself around on top of those fucking boxes is absolutely fearless. Grey’s Marquis is stratified, which is essential in making this character more than a cartoon. He’s is a clown, yes, funny at times, of course. But he is never not watching. His sardonic jokes, his sarcastic asides, his swaggery manner, Grey makes it clear that they all are meant to distract from his maybe-not-quite-heart-of-gold power. There is an exchange where the Marquis quickly and harshly dispenses with a vampire (yes, it’s that kind of show) that’ll show you what I mean.
Cassandra Dutt is a big actor (not physically, but yes, girl is tall). She has a huge presence and it was a joy to see her in a role that matched. Her Hunter is a cold, shrewd, calculating pro. She’s all muscle and skill (it’s too bad Hunter gets robbed of her great triumph at the end, even if she does deserve it, I’d gladly watch a three-hour play about her story, but those aren’t the ones that get written, are they?). Matthew Payne and Bobby Henneberg, doing the villainous Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, respectively, should probably just give up and start a web series, already. These characters will never NOT be audience favorites, true, but the way these two work together is priceless. Henneberg, looking like a grown-up Pugsley Addams, is a golem, and the way he lands his abbreviated sentences, usually having to do with something squishy, is hysterical. Payne’s words drop out of his mouth like oily knives, and his ice-blue eyes seem like they are actually glowing from underneath the brim of that hat. Melanie Glickman is so effective as The Angel Islington that you’ll be surprised, when you think back on it, how little stage time the character actually has. Even the supporting actors shine in their track cast roles; particularly standing out are Danielle Vitullo as the gentle Anaesthesia, Wesley Poloway as the dark Lamia, and Frank Mancino as a giddy, cantankerous subway Earl.
Neverwhere is a show that, above all things, demands motion. We need to believe that we’re traveling quickly through the dank corridors of a lightless, endless connection of tunnels. And motion is what we get, courtesy scenic designer Kel Millionie (and also in the scenic painting, believe it or not, by Haley Horton). Those wheeled boxes endlessly transform the tennis-court style space, segregating, remaking, destroying boundaries, even if I would have liked a stronger distinction between London London and London Below. Millionie also does lights and he is one of the few designers working on the small stage that understand what lighting sources actually are and how you go about creating them. His lights are street lights or subway lights or warning lights or whatever, but they are always something. Fight choreography by Jon Rubin is astounding, if showy (and why not show, if you can?). Rubin achieves what I rarely see fight choreography on the small stage achieve. It’s not just brutal. It’s brutal and alive. It’s got the same energy as watching a couple of guys, drunk on shitty beer and hopped up on jealousy, kick the shit out of each other in front of a bar. At one point, my notes just say KNUCKLES?? :(((((. Costumes by Samantha Callanta look appropriately dark and tatty. I’d have toned down the makeup (Emily Jewett), though, particularly on Grey. His face is so planed and expressive that he really doesn’t need the heavy “silent film” look, and it takes away from what he’s doing. Dutt, too, is painted like a jungle princess, which seems out of character and strays a little LARP.
BOTTOM LINE: Cohesion’s Neverwhere is a breathtaking achievement, elevating the art of the small stage in Baltimore city. I wouldn’t call it unblemished (some tightening here and there would have served it well) but I would call it unequaled, at least as of yet. It’s a big, impossible project that was absolutely pulled off with a pitch-perfect cast, bold choices and risky business. It’s the show to see.
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