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Virtual reality. Say that phrase to x number of people and you will most likely get x widely varying responses. What would such a place look and feel like? Would "you" still be you? Can you do things there that would get you thrown in jail in the real world? Can the fulfillment of forbidden and suppressed urges do anything to assuage the pain of missed human connections? These, and many other questions, are at the core of Jennifer Haley's The Nether, now playing at Manbites Dog Theater in downtown Durham. Winner of the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn prize, The Nether premiered in Los Angeles in 2013 followed by productions in London in 2014 and New York in 2015.
Despite an almost total absence of actual on-stage violence, sex, or overt harmful acts, The Nether is deeply disturbing and disconcerting. It is also a play divided into two quite incongruous locales. It begins in a very plain and "real" interrogation room of what appears to be the setup of thousands of similar police rooms where a subject is being questioned, even down to the old-fashioned four-drawer metal filing cabinet. Across the stage are a single bed and nightstand as well as an expanse of space that represents "The Hideaway," a virtual paradise where anything can be done, with supposedly no consequences. It is these two seemingly disparate places that are battling each other until some thinly telescoped revelations show the intersections of all involved. We are in an unspecified future time where, although there are no longer trees or birds (the rest is left to our imagination), there is still some lingering adherence to some moral order. The "Nether" is basically the Internet, and this is a cautionary sci-fi tale of coders gone mad: a simple login will transform you into whomever you want to be and transport you to a place where you can do whatever you want. So far, so good — although not a terribly original idea. The rub here is that the "whatever you want" is, among other acts, pedophilia and dismemberment.
Caitlin Wells play Morris, a kind of futuristic vice squad cop who is investigating Sims/Papa (Michael Brocki) for reports that he created/coded and is running a virtual reality site that allows clients to engage in behavior that even in an apocalyptic landscape are still considered forbidden and illegal. I liked that Wells avoided playing the interrogator as the cliché we've seen in thousands of scenes like this, but she could have spoken louder and conveyed more emotion when the part called for it. Brocki seemed a little wooden in this opening night performance and didn't seem to delineate his dual roles of the suspect Sims and his scenes as Papa, the proprietor, so to speak, of The Hideaway.
The critical part of Iris, the nine-year-old who is the "image" of a young girl in The Hideaway, was magnificently played by the real-life thirteen-year-old Marleigh Purgar-McDonald. Even more creepy than if played with a fully erotic direction, she captured an asexual, ghostlike presence in a way that had the audience squirming. Her scenes with Woodnut (Lazarus Simmons), a hesitant customer, ratcheted up the "horror" factor although nothing is actually shown. Simmons was quite effective as, perhaps, our collective conscience by questioning the whole setup. In the end, however, that does not stop him from using his virtual axe on Iris.
The final character is Doyle, a customer of The Hideaway, who is so addicted to the place that he wants to commit to the irrevocable act of "living" there forever. Played by Michael Foley, he presented the most emotional performance of the production as his character totally succumbs to his "disease."
This production takes the middle ground of set design and lighting as Haley herself indicates in notes to her play. In the hands of outstanding actors it can be done on a bare stage, or with money and resources to spare, the company can depict The Hideaway as a lush Shangri-La. Director Jules Odendahl-James craftily has presented this production as a division between action and talk — the body and spirit, as is a central philosophical discussion of The Nether.
From my perspective, it seems as if the addition of the destruction of the physical world, as we know it, is superfluous and detracts from the myriad issues otherwise presented. Is that a factor in justifying pedophilia, even if the act is with coded images? Does engaging in virtual reality behavior spill over into the "real" world and if so, does it even matter in a damaged world? If we step back, technologically, from The Hideaway, can these ideas apply to comparatively low-tech existing places such as chat rooms and the dark web?
There have been numerous productions at Manbites Dog Theater where it is the next day that you ponder all the questions and issues raised in their play. The Nether has done this more than any, and a second viewing is practically necessary. There are so many layers and ways to approach this and so many questions left not only unanswered, but unasked.
The Nether continues through Saturday, April 23. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.