Early in Neil Gaiman’s story “Neverwhere,” the discontented investment analyst Richard Mayhew finds himself following a stranger down the ladder of a London sewer hole. What he finds down there is not only a sanitation system but also a hidden world full of angels, talking rats, black-robed monks and damsels in distress. The residents, who call this world “London Below,” have all fallen through holes in the social safety net of London Above to land in this subterranean realm.
This story has been told in seemingly every way. It began life as a BBC TV series in 1996, was published as a novel later that year, was issued as a comic-book series in 2005, was adapted by Robert Kauzlaric for Chicago’s Lifeline Theatre in 2010 and was dramatized on BBC Radio in 2013. There’s even an as-yet-unproduced screenplay. But the theatrical version is the only one where the audience arrives at the bottom of that sewer ladder to share the same space as the inhabitants of London Below.
“What live theater can provide that you’re not going to get from any other iteration is an intimacy, an immersion, a physical presence,” says Jenny McConnell Frederick, co-founder of Washington’s Rorschach Theatre. “You’re in the room with another breathing human being, being forced to confront the emotions right in front of you. You don’t just imagine that world in your mind or on the screen in front of you — you enter the world of the characters and join them as a co-inhabitant rather than just standing back as a witness.”
Frederick is directing a new staging of Kauzlaric’s script, based on Rorschach’s 2013 production of the same. The two leads (Daniel Corey as Richard and Sarah Taurchini as Door) are returning, but half of the cast and much of the production team is new. Plenty of wrinkles have been added, thanks in part to co-designers David Ghatan and Robbie Hayes. Their company Pixelumenlab has developed innovative video projectors that can be carried by the performers like flashlights, revealing a new set with every sweep of the beam.
“The character can be moving and project the environment around them as they go,” Ghatan explains. “And because the characters are moving behind and all around the audience, the audience will feel like residents of that world, not outsiders peering in through a TV or a movie screen. Our video is not projected onto a flat wall. We’re not projecting a sunset when the characters are talking about a sunset. Our video will be projected onto the sets and floors to create colors and shapes that evoke a mood.”
Those moods are not all rainbows and unicorns, by any means. Like all good fantasy, “Neverwhere” provides as much mortal danger as dazzling magic. The seeming bag lady whom Richard helps on the street is called Door, because she has the ability to open invisible portals in any wall. But she is brusque with him because she is more worried about the killers who wiped out the rest of her family than she is about the delicate feelings of an above-grounder.
“For many of the people in the London Below,” Frederick points out, “the stakes are much higher than those for London Above. They’re trying to find something to eat and to avoid getting killed, while those in London Above can afford to collect art and get a legal report in on time. The costumes and scary makeup and horrible weapons bring out that dark side of the story, but so do things like Anaesthesia explaining how she fell through the cracks into London Below because her mother was too poor to take care of her. You have this sweet little actress telling this terrible story, and in some ways that is the darkest moment of all.”
Frederick and her designers don’t have the budget to compete with summertime movies that spend millions of dollars on CGI effects to conjure up fantasy worlds of incredible splendor and detail. Instead, Rorschach focuses on doing what movies can never do: ushering an audience into a small room filled with the tangible buildings and bridges of an otherworldly landscape and with the flesh-and-blood killers, heroines and magicians of that land. And it begins before the first line of dialogue, before you even find your seat.
“The sense of London Above seeping down into London Below over generations is part of this story,” Ghatan adds. “There are elements of the London we know — an arch or street lamp — that you might recognize from London Above. There’s a grubbiness and a sense that time has passed in these places.”
Richard and Door are chased from London Below to London Above and back again, pursued by a pair of wisecracking sadistic killers and betrayed by many a seeming ally. Door warms to Richard after he sticks by her and helps her out of some tight spots. And in response, Richard becomes less the go-along-to-get-along career-striver and more the proactive hero of a quest.
“In restaging the show,” Frederick says, “we’re finding a lot of corners that we want to dig into more deeply this time, especially into the characters’ motivations. This is a play about finding out where you belong and who your people are. When Richard says, ‘Sometimes you just have to do something,’ we now see that as the key line. A lot of the play is about Richard finding his voice and moving from a passive life to an active life.”
Rorschach Theatre at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. 202-399-7993. rorschachtheatre.com.
Dates: Saturday through Oct. 1.