REVIEW: Neverwhere (Lifeline Theatre)

‘Wicked’ isn’t the only dark Oz

 

Neverwhere5

 
Lifeline Theatre presents
 
Neverwhere
 
Adapted by Robert Kauzlaric from the novel by Neil Gaiman
Directed by Paul S. Holmquist
Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood (map)
Through June 20  |  Tickets: $30  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Alice fell through the rabbit hole. Dorothy was swept up by a tornado.

For good-hearted, mild-mannered Richard Mayhew, unlikely hero of Neil Gaiman’s dark fantasy Neverwhere, now in a world-premiere adaptation at Rogers Park’s Neverwhere1always innovative Lifeline Theatre, it’s stumbling on and aiding an injured girl that propels him into a strange new world — London Below – a grimmer, underground  version of the city he knows, a place of sewers and magic and people who fell through cracks … and from which there can be no return. Like Wicked, the 1995 Gregory Maguire novel from which the lighter, happier Broadway musical was adapted, Neverwhere, gives us an upended and blackly humorous view of a familiar place.

Directed by Paul S. Holmquist, Kauzlaric’s adaptation, ten years in the making, sticks closely to Gaiman’s 1996 novel, which was in turn based on a teleplay Gaiman did for a BBC miniseries.  Gaiman’s storyline leaves unanswered questions, and so does this play, but his creatively imagined world overcomes the hanging threads. Kauzlaric’s trimming removes some of the most gruesome and ugly bits, retaining most of the action.

The hapless Richard (guilelessly portrayed by Robert Kauzlaric, the playwright) journeys through the bizarre and deadly London Below with the hunted girl, Lady Door (plucky Katie McLean), and her companions, the dodgy, sardonic Marquis de Carabas (a wonderfully dry and laconic Chris Hainsworth) and the enigmatic bodyguard Hunter (Kyra Morris, in fighting trim). They’re off to see the angel Islington (somewhat over-deliberately played by Phil Timberlake) in an effort to find out who ordered Door’s whole family murdered and how Richard can, like Dorothy, go home again. The wizard … er, angel … sends them on a quest to bring back a mysterious key.

 

Neverwhere3 Neverwhere6 Neverwhere4

Lifeline does its usual beautifully inventive job of bringing the written word to the stage, with just a few minor flaws. Here and there, unexplained lines leftover from the book may be puzzling to those who haven’t read it. Mikhail Fiksel‘s eerie original music fits the mood quite well, but in several places underlying music or sound-effects distract from the dialogue. A few longish monologues slow the action (and add up to a 2½-hour-long production).

Alan Donahue’s multi-level set, full of doors and tunnels and ladders, goes a long way toward evoking the forbidding London Below, aided by puppets created by Kimberly G. Morris and rich performances from Patrick Blashill, Christopher M. Walsh and Elise Kauzlaric as a series of creepy, colorful, underworld characters. Sean Sinitski is spine-chillingly funny as the loquacious and sinister Mr. Croup.

Gaiman fans should be thrilled, but you needn’t know the novel to enjoy this lively fantasy adventure on stage.

 
 
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

Neverwhere2

Note: Not suitable for young children. Free parking available in the lot at the northeast corner of Morse and Ravenswood avenues, with free shuttle-van service before and after shows.

A scene from the BBC’s Neverwhere

Neil Gaiman on Neverwhere, Naperville, Feb. 2010

  
   

Continue reading

Review: Lifeline Theatre’s “Treasure Island”

 Lifeline creates an all-hands-on-deck winner

Treasure_Island3

Lifeline Theatre presents:

Treasure Island
by Robert Louis Stevenson
adapted by John Hildreth
directed by Robert Kauzlaric
through November 1st (buy tickets)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan

“There are two kinds of men in the world, ” the impeccably honest innkeeper Mr. Hawkins impresses upon his impressionable young son Jim early on in Treasure Island. “There are decent, God-fearing men who honor God, King and Country.” And here, the good father stops in a fraught pause worthy of Pinter before darkly concluding: “And pirates.”

The moment loses much of its impact on the page, but on stage it captures the marvelous duality of John Hildreth’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s coming-of-age-with-pirates classic. On the one hand, this is a violent and sobering story thick with casual, brutal killing and unbridled greed. On the other hand, it’s rich with wry humor, even if that humor is often as black as Blackbeard’s beard.

Treasure_Island1 Directed by Robert Kauzlaric, Treasure Island is a complex adventure that skimps on neither bloodshed nor labyrinthine plot details. Although older children may well find the production thrilling, this is not children’s theater – the stabbings, shootings, stranglings and other assorted murderous goings-on are staged with nightmarish impact. (An early bloodletting scene that looks wincingly real turns out to be only the amuse bouche of the evening.) Moreover, Stevenson’s story sometimes seems to have as many threads as the massive ship’s rigging that stretches in great, ropey arms from stage floor to flyspace. As Jim Hawkins’ allegiances shift from pirates to decent men and back again, you’ll be forgiven if you start to feel that you’re watching an elaborate sort of ping-pong game between scurvy rapscallions and proper British gentlemen. The primary flaw in Hildreth’s adaptation is that characters sometimes get lost amid the plot’s complexities. Amid flashbacks, cannon blasts, and hordes of seamen both jolly and evil, it’s not hard to lose track of who’s who among treasure seekers.

The glorious exception – and lynchpin of this able-bodied adventure – is Sean Sinitski. If there’s a Chicago actor better suited to play the uni-ped antihero Long John Silver, well, we’ll eat a fried parrot stuffed with counterfeit doubloons and basted with rancid rum for Sunday dinner. Young Master Hawkins (Warren Weber, in a solid, if somewhat distant performance) might be the moral center of the story, but Sinitski’s Long John is its moral compass. And a fascinating, conflicted compass he is indeed. Stumping along on prosthetic designer David Rende’s marvelously realized peg leg, Sinitski is a father figure of surprising and unconventional virtue. There is indeed honor among thieves, or pirates as the case may be, as decent men and scalliwags alike enlist Jim’s help in recovering the long lost treasure of the late, unlamented Captain Flint.

The supporting cast is an exemplary ensemble. Kauzlaric accomplishes that signature Lifeline feat of making 10 actors seem like dozens, filling the two hours stage traffic with an epic array of buccaneering rascals and proper Brits. Chief among equals: Christopher Walsh as the rum-and-rickets-infused Billy Bones, a rogue whose “thundering apoplexy” proves the catalyst for the story’s rollicking treasure hunt. Also notable is John Ferrick’s Squire Trelawney, an imperious fusspot who manages to keep his wig perfectly powdered even while under siege in the torrid climes of a tropical isle. Chris Hainsworth’s villainous Israel Hands is a fine, blackhearted reprobate while Patrick Blashill’s Dr. Livesey is a suitably multi-layered good guy foil to Sinitski’s oceanic outlaw. Sea chanteys play a lively part in creating the on-stage community, and for that, Andy Hansen’s original music and sound design should be applauded.

Set designer Alan Donahue (with the atmospheric assistance of Kevin D. Gawley’s lighting design) outdoes himself, creating a wonderfully flexible world of ropes and planks and pulleys that easily shifts from ship to shore. As for all the brawling inherent to any story involving pirates, fight director Geoff Coates creates all-hands-on-deck fisticuffs of skull-thumping veracity.

In all, it’s been a cracking fine year for Robert Louis Stevenson: Lifeline’s Treasure Island is the second world premiere adaptation of the tale this season. (A musical version, penned by former Chicagoans Curt Dale Clark and his husband Marc Robin, debuted at Indianapolis’ Beef and Boards Dinner Theatre in April.) The book can be a tough read – Stevenson’s speech patterns might not flow so easily to those used to the 21st century vernacular. A trip to Lifeline will make it abundantly clear just why the story is a classic.

Rating: «««½

Treasure Island continues through Nov. 1 at Lifeline Theatre, 6901 Glenwood. Tickets are $30, $25 seniors, $15 students and rush tickets. For more information, call 773/761-4477 or go to www.lifelinetheatre.com

Treasure_Island2

Continue reading