Nothing is ever easy when journeys are involved. Dare you take a journey most chimerical? Most fantastical? Up-worlders beware, darkness is happening: fantastical, phenomenal, hypnotizing darkness that crackles with the electrifying magic of #LondonBelow at Cohesion Theatre Company as they draw their second season to a close with the Baltimore premiere of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Directed by Brad Norris, this ambitious beast of a production ensnares the mind and engulfs the soul for a treacherous trek into a world unseen, a world of suspended disbelief and theatrical prestidigitation that transports the heart of the average theatergoer to a place most wondrous.
Visually striking in a gritty and disorienting fashion, Scenic Painter Haley Horton transforms Scenic and Lighting Designer Kel Millionie’s set into the stuff of ethereal nightmares. Like the squiggly gray bits that float just out of the corner of your eye, Horton’s paintwork purposefully splattered across the floors and mobile walls of the set generate an ephemeral feel, which is perfect for scenes like the Floating Market, the trains of London-Below, and other such transient locations that are peppered throughout the performance. Millionie’s under-lighting enhances a great deal of the nightmarish atmosphere, with currents of blue and green that swim up from the footlights and disperse through the almost cavernously vaulted ceiling of the play space, further engraining the sense of existing in a world below that of the waking one.
Director Brad Norris, in addition to fabricating a delectably revolting soundscape as the show’s Sound Designer, spawns forth a palpable elemental character amid the play and actors in the way he conceptualizes the set and scenic shifts. The ensemble moves like cogs in a machine, tugging, pushing, and pulling oversized monstrosities in and out of place to transcend locations. Norris’ concept of these underworld urchins moving as a part of the set, rather than trying to mask them in a crossfade or blackout, serves to actualize the inspiring world that Neil Gaiman has created. You are in London-Below, these characters as working scenic-shifters are those that Gaiman has described as ‘slipping through the cracks’ going almost unnoticed unless you watch carefully; the end result is theatrical genius beating with a pulse all its own.
Norris’ blocking of the show is bold. Several of the scenic captures— where actors stand astride elevated boxed platforms whilst in motion— are jarringly picturesque, like gazing into a gothic still life. Understanding the beats of Gaiman’s script, Norris’ blocking fully supports heightened emotional climaxes and mines the rich textual depth of the plot as it unfolds. Highlighting certain characters in their appearances and reveals, which must herein be referenced in shrouds of mystery to prevent spoilers, becomes an exacting art, one which Norris achieves with fantastical flourishes of earnest theatrical illusion. Captivating is the word that best describes what Norris has achieved with Gaiman’s work, and layered over the fact that Gaiman’s work is sensational literary prodigy adapted to the stage by Robert Kauzlaric, the production is enthralling, a theatrical thrill-ride that kidnaps you for an evening’s indescribable journey.
Enhancing the already enchanted aesthetic crafted by the aforementioned design team, Costume Designer Samantha Callanta Properties Deisnger Samantha Kucynski and Hair & Makeup Designer Emily Jewett finish the production with their design work the way an earnest crafter uses flickers of glitter as the finishing touch on a project. Jewett and Callanta work closely together to achieve a most curious couture for the show. Those principal denizens traversing London-Below have an almost Victorian inspiration threaded into their togs, where a more whimsical nature is in play for creatures that find themselves in permanent residency there. Color play is a prominent factor, particularly when it comes to Callanta and Jewett’s work in transforming performers who play multiple characters over the course of the production.
In an ensemble driven piece, flavorful characters like Old Bailey (Frank Mancino) and Anaesthesia (Danielle Vitullo) are just as critical a component to the recipe of the overall production as any principal performer. Vitullo, though only briefly introduced to us as the sweet Ratspeaker, leaves an impressionable mark on the mind’s eye in her delicate performance. Mancino, with a much more abrasive and outwardly projected character approach to Old Bailey, will not easily be forgot either, if for nothing else but his gravel-infected vocal affectation, and later his madcap performance as the off-kilter Earl. Wesley Poloway, who is one of but three performers to transition from the Mayhew world of London-Above to the tawdry streets of London-Below, has a frosty air about both of her characters. Poloway’s Jessica is crisp and clipped, like an autumnal evening warning of winter’s approach, whereas her performance as Lamia is terrifyingly inviting, like a bleak midwinter’s night at the stroke of the witching hour, keeping the snow thick on the ground. Both characterizations are hypnotic, one far more than the other, and both are worthy of praise.
The most heinous of henchmen, the vilest of villains, the tawdriest tramps that ever did slink their way through the sewers are represented most reprehensibly in Mr. Croup (Matthew Payne) and Mr. Vandermar (Bobby Henneberg.) A remarkable duo that plays up the wicked black humors of Gaiman’s writing, Payne and Henneberg work together like two rotting peas in a putrefying pod. With Henneberg carrying the heavier hand of humor, particularly in his thuggish delivery, the pair of revolting rapscallions each affect their voices in a manner most becoming for unctuous underlings of the underworld. Henneberg has a thick cockney sound that inspires his dopey patois, though it makes him no less menacing when ideal threats are conjugated into actual ones. Payne takes the reedier and more nasally affected approach to his character, a true menace that scrapes up the hairs on the back of one’s neck in a fashion most unsettling. Together they slither like slippery serpents through scenes both above and below, terrifying, terrorizing, and ultimately impressing their unsavory natures upon all they encounter.
The Angel Islington (Melanie Glickman) is a wonder, truth be told. Glickman’s performance as the angel possesses a displaced celestial quality about its essence, something unnervingly serene and frighteningly tranquil. There is a lilt to Glickman’s voice in the honeyed patois that she delivers, not angelic but heavenly, wafting from her lips, easing its way over the words and spellbinding the listeners. Not to be dismissed as an enigmatic entity with only one level, Glickman astounds with a momentary blast of volume in the second act. Channeling forth a tsunami of rage that sweeps up from nowhere and disappears as quickly as it arrives, Glickman’s performance is commanding and delivers a potent blow from the moment Islington is introduced. In addition to her wildly colorful success as the angel, Glickman graciously affects the role of ‘Fop with No Name’ with a unique and resplendently humorous charm.
One must be wary of doors, but in particularly of The Lady Door (Cori Dioquino) as wherever she’s found, trouble is bound to follow. Edgy, present, and fascinating in her approach to the rather odd girl of London-Below, Dioquino has a frenetically contagious energy about her portrayal that motivates a good deal of her scene work in the forward direction. Playing opposite of Richard Mayhew (Joseph Coracle), Dioquino does a fine job of steadying her character’s purpose and intentions early on, and consistently bringing them to the forefront of the quest.
Coracle, who much like Dioquino, masters his character’s accent, is the show’s perfect protagonist. Journeying down a path unexplored, Coracle delivers Richard Mayhew with honesty. There is a chance for character growth that allows the audience to feel and empathize with this otherwise ordinary boring sot of a man. Quippy and quick with zingers that read with zippy humor from his tongue, Coracle finds a niche that works for Mayhew amid the perpetually churning turmoil of the play.
In a battle of churlish self-importance, The Marquis de Carabas (Jonas David Grey) and Hunter (Cassandra Dutt) go toe to toe, line to line, and head to head in a war for show-stealing portrayal. Both performers are visually striking in their arrival on the scene, with Dutt’s character of Hunter not appearing until the plot is well underway in London-Below. While their direct interactions are few, the way that they characterize themselves and by proximity each other, is astonishing, and the result is two fully grounded supporting characters carrying the wildly fanciful adventure tale to its fully enthralling potential.
Dutt has a ferocious accent that she uses to lead her character forthright. Everything about her physicality is rigid and exacting in its intention, each breath and pause forcibly deliberate. Her animated eyes reflect a deeply-ingrained bloodlust that fuels the character’s ambitions. Driven to exercise her inner animalistic tendencies, when Dutt’s character leads the way or falls in line as the bodyguard it’s like watching a savage poacher stalk its pray. Multifaceted in her ability to deliver such a strong character, Dutt even exposes a wavering vulnerability in Hunter, with a shockingly earnest confession just moments before the first encounter with Islington. Fierce in every sense of the word, Dutt’s Hunter is the blood that pumps through the veins of this urban fairytale gone awry.
Grey’s Marquis de Carabas is just a little bit dodgy. Delivering a delectably nuanced performance with a superbly clear presence of mind in each and every moment that he’s on stage, Grey guides the show on its winding course, like a corrupted Virgil forcing Dante through hell. So sharp of tongue in his wit-driven delivery that he cuts himself open, Grey’s intentional transparency to the character is a mind-boggling ploy that keeps the audience on their toes. With a vividly expressive body and facial features to match, a passionately invested Grey transforms the Marquis de Carabas from an ordinary character of support to an extraordinary entity of show-stealing proportions.
I’d keep an eye out, if I were you. Watch out for doors…and pray that you haven’t stepped too far into this mesmerizing world of sewers, magic, and darkness that Cohesion Theatre Company has fabricated into existence from Gaiman’s world of fantastical brilliance. Best of luck.
Running Time: Approximately 3 hours with one intermission
Neverwhere plays through June 19, 2016 at Cohesion Theatre Company now at the United Evangelical Church— 3200 Dillon Street in the Canton neighborhood of Baltimore, MD. Tickets are available at the door or in advance online.