review: The Nether

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The Nether

by Jennifer Haley
Directed by Seth Rozin
Featuring Bi Jean Ngo, Greg Wood, Tim Moyer, Griffin Stanton-Ameisen, Emi Branes-Huff
InterAct Theatre Company @ The Drake, Center City Philadelphia
March 25, 2016 – April 17, 2016 

production site

[This is the third of five reviews for shows viewed in Philadelphia during the April 2016 annual meeting of the American Theatre Critics Association.]

(L-R) Bi Jean Ngo, Greg Wood. Image by Kate Raines.
(L-R) Bi Jean Ngo, Greg Wood. Image by Kate Raines.

The Nether presents modern online lives mashed with alternative life styles and explores what is private and what is public and how we negotiate those spaces. As I sit in InterAct Theatre‘s comfortable new theater crafted out of what was an empty ballroom in The Drake apartment building in Center City Philadelphia, I ponder the wide range of plays that have variously attempted to capture cyber worlds on stage. I’ve seen The Nether in a 2015 New York City incarnation, discussed the play with the playwright, and reflected in HowlRound on the work as a product of the O’Neill Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Connecticut. And this Philadelphia chapter of the play’s evolution is focused, powerful, and haunting. We are cursed, as the character Sims says of himself, “with compulsion and insight.” And that’s why many of us attend theater, to explore those compulsions and insights together.

The Nether (which we learn is a version of the Internet) is a place as well as a moral and sexual theatrical journey. Cyber-detective Morris (Bi Jean Ngo) conducts a series of crime procedural style interviews of businessman Sims (Greg Wood) and Sims’ customer Doyle (Tim Moyer) about the Victorian-era world Sims has created called “The Hideaway.” In that cyber location, human customers adopt digital identities and play out sexual fantasies involving children and violence. We encounter real word characters and their cyber world guises, and the mystery of who is really who keeps us tight in the storyteller’s grip through the 80 intermission-less minutes. Virtual characters animate the fantasy world, including the child object of fantasy desires Iris (Emi Branes Huff) and undercover investigator Woodnut (Griffin Stanton-Ameisen).

Playwright Jennifer Haley‘s background in developing computer games adds currency to cyber-influenced theatrical worlds she has explored in several plays. Her characters breathe and their physical and imagined transpositions work on more nuanced levels than many recent plays that involve characters typing at computer keyboards and projections showing us what they’re communicating. Haley crafts theatrical experiences that deal with the results of email communications and electronic imagined environments rather than getting bogged down in the technology.

At the same time, The Nether allows for a range of built environments. Production designs have varied dramatically—from a revolving dollhouse in 2013 at Center Theatre Group (CTG) in Los Angeles, to digital high-velocity projections in the London designs in 2014 and 2015, to the hidden pocket doors that opened to reveal Victorian lushness in the 2015 MCC New York design. InterAct’s production, with spare set by Melpoment Katakalos and costumes by Janus Stefanowicz and lights by Maria Shaplin, strips production values to focus on the text and story structure. And this structure is hauntingly good.

The Nether won the Blackburn Prize in 2012 after its work at the O’Neill and during its time with CTG. The American Theatre Critic Association awarded Haley the 2014 Primus Prize, adding a bit of delightful ownership and pleasure to the ATCA conferees attending the show during our 2016 Philadelphia meetings. And the play is proving to be a popular selection for regional theaters across the United States. Part of that popularity must be the immediacy, the currency, of the story. Where are we spending our time as a culture? What is real? One character in The Nether‘s real world asks another character of means about the amount of time he spends in The Hideaway.”Why, with such abundance, would you spend so much time as a shade?” The character’s answer to that question is a key to the secret of this story. Our individual answers to that question might illuminate some core truths about how we each live our lives.

© Martha Wade Steketee (April 17, 2016)

Playwright | Jennifer Haley
Director | Seth Rozin
Set Design | Melpomene Katakalos
Costume Design | Janus Stefanowicz
Lighting Design | Maria Shaplin
Sound Design | Rob Kaplowitz
Dramaturgy | Kittson O’Neill

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