Los Angeles Theater Review: NEVERWHERE (Sacred Fools Theater Company)

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by Paul Birchall on April 10, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles

NOT MUCH UNDERGROUND

Author Neil Gaiman writes for the anime and graphic novel era – rollicking adventures that are tonally glib, suffused with whimsy and wit, and full of puns, extraordinary concepts, and vivid characters.  Attempting to adapt these novels for Paul Birchall's Stage and Cinema LA review of "Neverwhere" at Sacred Foolsthe theater is an audacious idea – and so much more so to stage Gaiman’s Neverwhere, a tour de force surreal opus about an alternative world existing parallel (and below) ours.  This is why it’s such a shame that playwright Robert Kauzlaric’s adaptation comes across as such an unsettling disappointment at Sacred Fools.  It’s labored when it should be whimsical, plodding when it should be packed with adrenalin, and flatfooted when it should be full of verbal pyrotechnics.

It turns out that Neverwhere is originally based on a TV series, which Gaiman originally wrote and then adapted into his novel.  By rights, this means that a stage adaptation of the book should be a fairly straightforward matter – and, indeed, Kauzlaric’s plot adequately condenses and comprises the book’s events, sometimes accordioning them into a tight series of incidents.  Missing, however, is the magic that is the book’s essence, and little of its “crackle” and “snap” you’d expect to translate to the stage.

Richard Mayhew (Bryan Bellermo) is a plodding office worker, anticipating with some dismay his upcoming marriage to brittle Jessica (Cassandra Vincent), when he stumbles on Miss Door (Paula Rhodes), an injured young girl on the run from a pair Paul Birchall's Stage and Cinema LA review of "Neverwhere" at Sacred Foolsof otherworldly, vicious thugs.  After grudgingly agreeing to perform a seemingly pointless favor for Door, Richard gradually finds himself descending into a bizarre world of tunnels, mazes, and murky dens, full of witches, warriors, wise rats, and crackpots.  Before long, Door and Richard set out on a journey through this incredible landscape to locate a key for a kindly-seeming Angel (Carlos Larkin), who promises to make all their dreams come true.

The untold “star” of Gaiman’s novel is London itself – scenes are not only set at locations familiar to London locals and to tourists, but the locales “come to life” in unexpected ways: There’s a group of Black Friars who live in Blackfriars, for instance, and there’s a magical “floating market” that appears in places like Harrods late at night after closing.  Both book and play are chock full of characters and locations that may be metaphors and references to the grand old city.

Unfortunately, Kauzlaric’s adaptation lacks grace.  It compresses the episodic series of events into a narrative, but does so in a schematic manner, with little feeling for emotional depth or character development – something difficult to imagine, given Paul Birchall's Stage and Cinema LA review of "Neverwhere" at Sacred Foolsthat the story deals with magic, angels, and, yes, rats that talk.

At the same time, director Scott Leggett’s production is missing the feeling of grandeur, or, indeed, any sense of fun.  Fantasy trappings notwithstanding, the play’s a plod, and, at close to three hours, a long one, too.  Part of the problem might be Michael James Schneider’s stodgy set design.  Yes, we know that much of the play is set in an underworld of tunnels and caverns, but one is struck by the flimsiness of the cardboard-like doors and walls.  It would almost be better to have no set at all, than have one that is so much less than is imagined from the text.

We find ourselves expecting far more creativity than is ever offered us here.  When a scene calls for the murky creepiness of a sort of steampunk underworld culture, Leggett instead offers us a sort of turning cardboard turret-thing that looks as low Paul Birchall's Stage and Cinema LA review of "Neverwhere" at Sacred Foolsbudget as it probably is.  When characters are supposed to appear in a shocking blast of excitement, we’re bored because we’ve seen them crouching upstage right, in the full glare of the lights, for about 10 minutes already, waiting for their “bu-ha-ha-ha” cue.

Performances are smooth, though lacking in psychological density – though this, too, is a fault of the adaptation’s compression of personality into broadly drawn quirks.  As Mayhew, Bellomo (understudying on the night reviewed) deftly portrays the play’s “everyman” – a normal yuppie suddenly tossed into a chaotic, random world, the journey through which seems unclear.  However, Rhodes one-note turn as magical princess Door is so annoyingly perky, she starts to grate on one’s nerves far earlier than she should.  Jonathan Kells Phillips, as a pompous warrior who acts as Mayhew and Door’s underworld guide, overtly channels Hugh Grant, with every twitch and plummy stammer – also an annoyance.

The pacing problems epidemic within Leggett’s staging might possibly be the result of a show that simply hadn’t “jelled” by opening night – but the work possesses a heaviness that is directly oppositional to the cleverness suggested by the premise.

Paul Birchall's Stage and Cinema LA review of "Neverwhere" at Sacred Fools

photos by Jessica Sherman

Neverwhere
Sacred Fools Theater Company
scheduled to end on May 11. 2013
for tickets, call (310) 281-8337 or visit http://www.sacredfools.org

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