The inventive Rorschach Theatre has a flair for cult fantasy, but the troupe has upped its game big-time for the sprawling “Neverwhere.” The wild plot careens through a seedy underworld known as London Below, and the set takes up all of a large black-box theater in the Atlas Performing Arts Center, where the actors make use of every corner of the room.
Victorian assassins, fallen angels, a time-warp fop, pirates and prostitutes, plus helpful rats and huge scary beasts — the apparitions seem never-ending.
So, too, does the ultra-shaggy plot of this nearly three-hour play, adapted for the stage by Robert Kauzlaric from the novel by Neil Gaiman. Originally, “Neverwhere” was a 1996 BBC miniseries — Gaiman wrote his book because he didn’t like the TV result — and its focus is the adventure of a young Scotsman named Richard Mayhew, a likable but undistinguished man who is about to begin a steady career in London’s financial district. When he helps a derelict woman named Door, Richard gets sucked into a phantasmagorical alternate reality filled with danger and heroic opportunities.
Door’s family was killed, you see, and someone has sent the sadistic hit men Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar to — well, it’s not what you’d call a grown-up story. By the show’s second hour, it feels like a convoluted mess you’ll never get out of, something strictly for cult buffs.
Strange as it is, a lot of the characters seem familiar. Sarah Taurchini’s plucky, sexy Door is like Princess Leia. In a comic turn, Grady Weatherford’s Marquis de Carabas swashbuckles like Capt. Jack Sparrow, and the frigid soul sucker played by Liz Osborn recalls the Dementors in “Harry Potter.” It’s a big cast (12 actors, many of them doubling and tripling in roles), and they’re all dressed to the grubby nines by costume designer Debra Kim Sivigny, who must have maxed out the company’s budget on cheapo leathers, strappy boots and matted furs.
Somehow, the third hour is clear and triumphant, even if the story is less interesting than how director Jenny McConnell Frederick ringleads the whole ambitious thing. David C. Ghatan’s scenic design features ramps and walkways around the theater, and a long runway bisects the seating area. The runway is perfect for preening entrances (the costumes really are terrific) and jousting, and for a particularly suspenseful and amusing scene on a train platform that tests Richard’s courage and his understanding of reality.
Cory Ryan Frank illuminates the vast space with light ranging from small pools to blinding flashes, and the ambience is fleshed out by the sinister underscoring from sound designer Veronica J. Lancaster and clever props from Andrea “Dre” Moore. Rorschach specializes in alternate worlds, so it’s no surprise the details are so well planned. But the scale is impressive.
The acting? It has to be cocky, and it generally is. Daniel Corey is solid as the winsome, bashful Richard, yet the tone is dominated by the semi-comic florid turns — Weatherford’s charming Marquis; the “convoluted circumlocutions,” as one of the thugs puts it, of Mr. Croup (Colin Smith) and Mr. Vandemar (Ryan Tumulty); and so on. The script is pure popcorn, but as the actors leap across elevated platforms ringing the room and push the action-oriented dialogue, you can’t imagine Frederick and her gang running any harder with it.
adapted for the stage by Robert Kauzlaric from the novel by Neil Gaiman. Directed by Jenny McConnell Frederick. With Emma Jackson, Jennifer Knight, Lee Liebeskind, Scott McCormick and Christian Sullivan. About two hours and 45 minutes. Through Sept. 15 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Call 202-399-7993 or visit www.atlasarts.org.