The desires and dilemmas The Nether explores are as dark as they come, so the question for the potential audience member is: are you afraid of the dark? Or do you find it contemplative?
If you are the type who would never admit to watching porn, let alone discuss its ethical implications in polite society, Jennifer Haley’s award-winning play may shock you out of your seat. Otherwise, you may see in it simply a well-constructed take on common science-fiction themes – identity in virtual reality, sexuality in imagined worlds – with plenty to thoughtfully debate when you go out for drinks afterwards.
Woolly Mammoth’s production, directed by Shana Cooper, takes an intelligent approach by largely getting out of the way of Haley’s thorny script. There’s a studied kind of distance in the performances of the committed cast that lets the ideas breathe – a welcome choice given how bathetic and assaultive the story could have become in less careful hands.
Edward Gero and Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey lead the way as the suspect and detective, respectively, Gero’s Sims (a.k.a. “Papa”) putting up walls with his intellect that Fernandez-Coffey’s Morris slowly breaks through, revealing ever further the truths about the virtual world Sims has created: the Hideaway, a Victorian resort in the virtual world of the Nether (the descendant of our Internet) with a special clientele: pedophiles.
The most outwardly stunning aspect of Cooper’s staging is in the design. Whereas the actors let us in with careful intent, the set design (Sibyl Wickersheimer,) lights (Colin K. Bills,) and projections (Jared Mezzocchi) combine to physicalize our journey into their world. A giant box of an interrogation room overhangs into the audience as we enter, then later lifts away to bring us, beautifully, into the lush-yet-ephemeral world of the Hideaway. Then the interrogation room comes back, and then more layers are peeled off, in a back-and-forth that both guides us through the plot and helps us slowly wrap our heads around what’s going on beneath the surface.
And beneath that surface live Doyle (Paul Vincent O’Connor), another suspect Morris is interviewing, to try to get to Sims. Then there’s Woodnut (Tim Getman), a “guest” of Sims/Papa, who visits and gets to know Iris (Maya Brettell), a perpetual 9-year old within the virtual Hideaway – a computer-designed human costume worn by an anonymous real-world controller, for Papa’s clients to unleash their unspeakable eros upon.
Brettell’s is the most impressive and emblematic of these performances; she walks the finest of lines between playing the child and playing the adult behind the child-avatar, between emotional distance and emotional honesty, between hitting us over the head and shying away from the situation. She comes across as just-enough-but-not-too-much of an adult, as an actor, that we are not disturbed by watching the play examine these themes onstage in front of us, nor are we let off the hook for what the story is supposed to be portraying.
April 4 – May 1, 2016
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
641 D Street NW
Washington, DC 20004
1 hour, 20 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $20 – $78
Check for discounts!
Portraying science-fiction – particularly that dealing with virtual worlds – onstage is a considerable challenge. Films and novels (even video games) have significant advantages in that regard. The Nether, particularly in Cooper’s able hands, makes the case that, while we might not get to really experience or feel the world in a staged version as we might through other media, the ironies and complexities of identity are best served by having those actors right in front of us. Woolly’s production reinforces this notion from the moment we enter the building, by giving us virtual-reality games to play right there in person, with the rest of the audience around us, playing too.
The communal and meta-theatrical effect of sitting there, in the dark, facingWoolly’s stage, with actors we know are acting mere feet from us, is to lay bare for us the humanity of Haley’s themes, and of ourselves, and the people gasping or nervously laughing or making self-conscious under-their-breath comments a few feet from us. While the play might overwhelm some, and prove unchallenging to others who are more literate in sci-fi or futurism, it will not fail to offer a genuine connection for all.
The Nether by Jennifer Haley . Directed by Shana Cooper . Featuring Edward Gero, Paul Vincent O’Connor, Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey, Tim Getman, Maya Brettell . Set Design: Sibyl Wickersheimer . Costume Design: Kelsey Hunt . Lighting Design: Colin K. Bills . Sound Design and Original Music: Eric Shimelonis . Projections Design: Jared Mezzocchi . Production Dramaturg: Kirsten Bowen . Stage Manager: John Keith Hall . Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman.