Thrilling NEVERWHERE: A Signature Production for an Ambitious New Company

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Thrilling NEVERWHERE: A Signature Production for an Ambitious New Company

Neverwhere

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com June 6, 2016

There’s a theme in imaginative fiction and drama, especially of the British persuasion, of a hidden and somewhat magical world coexisting with our own, and of a protagonist, often a child or an unformed person who finds his or her way from an ordinary life into the magical world and, once there, embarks willy-nilly on a hero’s quest. (Think Alice in Wonderland, Michael, John and Wendy, all of the kids who visit Narnia, Bilbo and Frodo, or Harry Potter, just to name a few off the top of one’s head.) Neverwhere, brought to Baltimore by Cohesion Theatre in a thrillingly ambitious production, is firmly in that category.

This is the story of Richard Mayhew (Joseph Coracle), an investment advisor described in the script as “a fresh-faced man with a rumpled, just-woken-up look to him,” a naïve Everyman in short, whose Good Samaritan deed for an injured woman in the street catastrophically severs him from his life in our everyday world and initiates him into the life of London Below, amidst the Tube stops and the utility tunnels and rooms without doors that one can only enter by magic, filled with fantastic people and animals, ranging from an angel to superhero types to talking rats to millennia-old assassins to a mythical monster that a hero (Mayhew, it emerges) must slay.

Neil Gaiman, creator of Neverwhere, which I’m sorry to say I’d never heard of before Cohesion brought it to Baltimore, incarnated his reimagining of London Above and London Below first in a TV miniseries, then novelized it. Others turned it into a series of graphic novels, and there have been two dramatic adaptations, the second of which, a 2010 version, by Robert Kauzlaric, is the one on display here.

I don’t know the Ur-work here, so I cannot hold forth on the fidelity of the adaptation to the source-material, but I know a gripping mythos when I see one. This is the real deal. If you have the kind of imagination that responds to graphic novels and Game of Thrones, this one is for you. You will find yourself transported for three hours into a world completely different from our own, but it is nevertheless detailed, dramatically coherent, and totally absorbing.

And a heavy lift to boot. Cohesion is a young fringe company, and I have no idea how they summoned the resources to do this. Let me start with the set by Kyle Millionie. The principal features are two very large wooden cubes with three sides cut away, with ladders attached so they may be scaled; they sit on castors so they can roll, and roll they do. As they are moved back and forth, frequently with actors standing balanced atop them, precariously clearing the ceiling and the lights by mere inches, they become rooms, cars in the Tube, offices, bridge abutments, and who knows what else. The cast pitches in to move these boxes around with sometimes scary speed and precision, making for the same kind of dangerous-looking show as the flying knives that attract us all from time to time to Japanese steak house hibachis.

Let me continue with the costumes, tipping the hat as I do so to designer Samantha Collanta. They beautifully evoke various eras and contexts: punk for Door, the damsel in distress (Cory Dioquino), Victorian for the assassins Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar (Matthew Payne and Bobby Henneberg), superhero for the protectress Hunter (Cassandra Dutt), ancient Greece or Rome for the Angel (Melanie Glickman), Restoration or Regency for The Fop With No Name (Melanie Glickman again), etc., etc. (There are a lot of costumes and roles to go around in the twelve-member cast, with constant costume and makeup changes for many of them.)

And hence, by unconventional but logical progression, to the cast, who have the heaviest lift of all, even when not pushing the huge boxes around. I’ve been seeing some of them in different contexts over the past couple of years, and my take is that their craft, individual and joint, has been improving. Take Payne and Henneberg, who portray the assassins; they were also paired together speaking in awkward Clouseau-inspired French accents in Cohesion’s French romantic farce, 13 Dead Husbands, a year ago, and they both came across as a little unformed; this outing, equipped with Cockney accents that sound unforced, they do a fine and more assured job with menace and murder. Cassandra Dutt I have been following with interest since a show at Fells Point Corner Theatre a couple of years back, and with Hunter, she does her finest work I’ve seen. When she is onstage looking lethal in leather and wrist-guards, and speaking in (I guess) Scottish-accented tones of defiance while wielding a staff, you don’t look anywhere else. Melanie Glickman’s versatility is amazing to watch, as she shifts from Gary, another office-bound Everyman, or Everyman’s pub-mate, at least, and the above-mentioned Fop (really two roles, one (the before one) a dandy, and the second (after a calamitous loss in a vicious fight), an invalid), to the Angel Islington (a queenly characterization that reminded me of Cate Blanchett‘s Galadriel in the Tolkien movies). I could say similar things about almost every member of this cast. They are punching at or above their weight, and their enthusiasm is infectious.

Nor can I leave off without mentioning the fight choreography of Jon Rubin, and the creature puppetry of Elisabeth Roskos. This is an extremely violent show, with many fights, much torture and bloodshed, and even a confrontation with a monster. Rubin rises to the challenge of making all this mayhem, which has to be called a major element in the show, believable and unrepetitious. And Roskos’s puppet of the Monster, The Beast of London, even though represented only skeletally, conveys fearsomeness quite effectively.

Obviously, this show is a kind of signature statement by Cohesion, which seems to share with Spotlighters, a very different local company, an unwillingness to acknowledge any limits to what it can do with limited resources. One hopes Cohesion can sustain this energy, competing in the crowded environment that the Baltimore stage has become. It is a good sign that Cohesion has moved from the Church on the Square, its recent venue, to a hall attached to the United Evangelical Church in Canton. To do big, physical stuff you need a big space. The acoustics here are also better than they were at Church on the Square, although that is not saying much; the audibility of lines in this new hall is still nothing to write home about. Hopefully Cohesion can keep searching for even better spaces, maybe even one of its own eventually.

In the meantime, it is clear what Baltimore audiences need to do: they need to come out and support this company. The rousing and stimulating good time that Neverwhere provides is all the incentive they should need.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo.

Pictured: Cory Dioquino, Cassandra Dutt, Joseph Coracle, Danielle Vitullo (?). Photo credit: Shealyn Jae Photography.

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