january 2017 | Volume 151
The Nether, by American playwright Jennifer Haley, is a think-piece that examines life in a dystopian future world where people can move back and forth between biological reality and a virtual reality just as real to them, if not more so, and even “cross over” to live entirely through their avatars in virtual reality, here called “the nether.” More specifically, this densely packed one-act considers whether we might allow crimes such as sex with children and even murder to be practiced in virtual space, with impunity, as an alternative and perhaps preventative to their being committed in our world.
This Redcurrant Collective production, a Fringe Festival hit last fall, gets a very strong remount at the Firehall from director Chris Lam. Jonathan Kim’s film noir lighting and James Coomber’s spooky electronic soundscape provide excellent accompaniment to some fine performances. In the end I liked the production better than the script which, though thought-provoking and clever, feels overly complicated and a little pretentious.
The Nether takes place in an unspecified future in which the natural world, for reasons that are never explained, is in great decline. A rich man can boast of having 200 square feet of lawn, a single tree and a wife who wears cotton. That man is Sims (David Bloom), known as Papa in the nether, where he has established The Hideaway, a faux Victorian brothel of sorts where visitors pay to have sex with or even kill a nine-year-old girl named Iris (Julia Siedlanowska).
Back in the real world (it’s hard to know exactly what to call it – our world?), Sims is being interrogated by hard-ass detective Morris (Lissa Neptuno), who seems to be part of a self-appointed force determined to police what she calls “the great wild west” of the nether. She accuses Sims of child abuse, rape, murder. He retorts that he recognizes his own pedophilia and other anti-social tendencies, and set up The Hideaway specifically to allow himself, and others like him, to indulge their aberrant fantasies in cyberspace without harming any real people.
She also interrogates Doyle (Linden Banks), a regular client of The Hideaway, who takes Papa’s side. (In “real life,” he’s a professor at the University of Metaphysical Certitude, one of the play’s show-offy throwaway details.) The play cuts back and forth between these interrogations and The Hideaway, where Morris has sent undercover cop Woodnut (Douglas Ennenberg) to pose as a client, and where a couple of elaborate sub-plots develop involving Julia and Papa, Woodnut and Julia, and their various avatars.
The interrogation scenes are nicely balanced, with Bloom and Neptuno each presenting their characters’ apparently rational points of view in compelling ways. Bloom plays Sims with enough of a creepy edge to keep us wondering whether he’s just a lying, self-justifying psychopath, and Neptuno gradually reveals Morris’ own real stakes. Banks provides an effective counterpoint, playing Doyle with a barely suppressed desperation that sometimes breaks through into hysteria. And Siedlanowska is simply fabulous as sweet, composed, Alice-in-Wonderlandish little Julia, around whom the play, and the overdetermined theme of love in the nether, ultimately swirls.
It would be a cliché, but nevertheless true, to say that The Nether deals with fantastic ideas that become more realistic and issues that become timelier every day. I’m delighted to see local companies choosing to do plays with this kind of substance, whatever their flaws, to see them (I’m thinking here also of The Fighting Season, now on at The Cultch) being tried out at the Fringe, which for a long time has threatened to become a showcase only for vanity pieces and silliness, and to see the best of them remounted by mainstage theatres.
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