Entertainment » Theatre

The Nether

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Jun 25, 2018
Bob Mussett and Julia Talbot in 'The Nether'
Bob Mussett and Julia Talbot in 'The Nether'  (Source:Jake Scaltreto)

It would be natural, but a little unfair, to compare Jennifer Haley's play "The Nether" to the British-born (now Netflix-borne) sci-fi anthology series "Black Mirror." Though the TV series explores the terrors and dangers of technology - or, more precisely, the myriad of terrors available at the point of contact between technology and human nature - Haley has been writing about these things since long before "Black Mirror" debuted. Boston area audiences might remember the production of her play "Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom" that Happy Medium Theater presented in 2011.

For her thriller "The Nether," Haley ventures deeper into the Internet, though in her futuristic play the Internet is now known as The Nether. It's a clever narrative device, alerting us to the virtual and spiritual abyss that Haley drags us toward; many of today's controversies surrounding online content and its uses persist into the future Haley envisions, a future in which wired up, logged-in people are capable of fully immersing themselves into virtual environments where food, locations, and even sex are all experienced with such fidelity that they match or exceed the real thing.


Julia Talbot in 'The Nether'  (Source:Jake Scaltreto)

It's a mixed blessing: The characters of this piece make passing references to an ongoing ecological calamity that's seen commonplace forms of life we know today decline to near-extinction. The Nether offers a relief and an escape into reconstructions of the past, or, if that's not enough to suit, outrageous imaginings. But when reality is so impoverished, a permanent retreat into fantasy can become irresistible, and some people do retreat into the synthetic delights of the Nether, leaving their bodies to wither away.

The risks are more than physical, thought. The fantasies offered to the hideaway's select clientele are billed as having no real-life consequences; can that possibly be true? It's one thing to serve a beloved child a cake made of glowing ice that will never melt, but when people seeking thrills... or whatever... offer themselves to axe-wielding fellow participants, questions regarding the state of the human soul start seemingly more than theoretical.


Regine Vital and Jeff Gill in 'The Nether'  (Source:Jake Scaltreto)

The play takes place on two levels, or rather in two environments. We assume one is real; it's a holding cell of some sort, or an interrogation chamber. An inspector named Morris (Regine Vital) alternatively quizzes two different men, cajoling and threatening them with the expertise of a seasoned pro. One of them is an elderly fellow named Doyle (Jeff Gill); he's at the end of his life and feels he has little to fear to to lose. The other is a much younger man with the appropriate name Sims (Bob Mussett), a talented software engineer who has created and maintains a "hideaway" patterned after an earlier century's fashions, architecture, and (though this is not stated directly) in some sense, arguably, its mores.

Sims is recalcitrant, and on the defensive; he pushes back because Morris is not with the police or the FBI or any other governmental agency. Rather, she's with some sort of standards-setting enforcement group that oversees The Nether. He questions her authority, but at the same time he fears her power over him: She possesses the power to digitally exile wrongdoers.

The question becomes what sort of wrongdoing Sims and the guests he welcomes into his hideaway might be engaging in, but what does wrongdoing mean in The Nether? Questions of representation, consent, ethics, and crime all converge on his virtual retreat. The people who go there - like Iris (Julia Talbot), a precocious little girl who we can be pretty sure is someone very different in real life, or like Mr. Woodnut (Arthur Gomez), a new visitor to Mr. Sims' carefully constructed world of imagination - can appear very different here from their analogue selves. Age, race, gender - it all becomes a matter of preference, rather than fixed characteristics. The only thing that's guaranteed about the people you meet at the hideaway is their anonymity.


Julia Talbot and Arthur Gomezin 'The Nether'  (Source:Jake Scaltreto)

The hideaway is, then, like today's hookup apps, only with more dimensions and more ethical quandaries. It's a playground where strangers can meet and get to know each other by their alternative, fictitious selves. Think of today's tenuous grasp on facts and truth and extend it a few degrees, and that's where habitu├ęs of The Nether live. How should their actions - carried out in a nonexistent "place" of ones and zeroes - be policed? Does their conduct inside The Nether constitute real and actionable behavior? If not - if hate virtual life is legally and morally nothing more than a dream - can they be penalized for their fantasies?

Theater - like literature, like movies, like all storytelling - is a kind of Nether of its own, and imagination has its own logic, its own laws, and its own limitations... or does it? Haley comments on our own unease with the possibilities that technology presents to us, and in doing so she comments on our own conflicted inner selves. "I know I shouldn't say this," we might preface an insulting or ungenerous remark; "I'm not one to gossip, but..." But we do it anyway, that's what. Build a world where opinion and fantasy can be reflected in shared synthetic sensory impressions, and that conflict grows exponentially, right along with the extremes and abuses that become available.

Director Sarah Gazdowicz paints the future for us but keeps the material grounded in the eternal moment of human nature. Connor Van Ness paints the future, too, with clever LED lighting, using unsettling shades of purple and green; he also paints the past, casting Mr Sims' retro fantasy in a roseate, nostalgic glow. Rebecca Lehrhoff creates two distinct settings, side by side, and establishes a surreal, Dali-esque wall (or portal) between them. We shift from one kind of reality into the next without difficulty, partly because of the skills of the writer, director, designers, and cast... but also because we are, or are becoming, digital natives. That in itself ought to give us food for thought.


"The Nether" continues through June 30 at the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown. Tickets and more information at https://www.flatearththeatre.com/


Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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