If 21st century science-fiction is your thing, ”The Nether” is for you. The current Capital Stage production of Jennifer Haley’s futuristic play is bewildering and intriguing at the same time. It presents a futuristic existence that allows realization of the darkest fantasies an individual might have with everything as real as a virtual reality can be.
The stage for the telling of the tale is set before the actual play even begins in the computerized-voice announcement of the particulars about the theater and the show (where the exits are located, the play’s one act running time, and related information). It’s a clever way to establish the mood for what follows. The lighting design (by scenic designer Timothy McNamara) and the sound design (by Ed Lee) also help to create the playwright’s intended mood.
That mood is dark, even when the actual scenes are occasionally bright, because something is not right in the “nether,” which is where patrons go to escape the world and to act out their fantasies. Those fantasies revolve around a nine-year old girl named Iris who is virtually available to men who want a certain kind of experience with an attractive girl with a pleasant smile and winning personality. The men enjoy their dates with Iris as their fantasies dictate, and, when fully consummated, they end with an axe, which, Iris assures one of her male friends, only hurts as much as she wants it to.
Sound disturbing? The playbill’s advisory warns of “intense adult themes,” which seems apt, albeit most of the intense action takes place off stage.
On-stage the scenes are split between the “world” and the “nether.” In the world, a woman, in what appears to be some kind of police interrogation room, alternately questions two men about the activities they have engaged in while in the nether. In the nether, the interactions with Iris are shown in their preliminary stages. The only blood we see is on the blade of that axe that one of the men at one point takes hold of as he walks off stage with the young Iris.
The nether, you see, is the make-believe world in the advanced computer age that this play envisions. And in showing what she does show of it (and hinting at the rest), Ms. Haley sets up the ethical dilemma that the men and the questioning woman in the interrogation scenes explore. Is it a positive force for human society to allow people (here men) to act out their illegal (in the case of pedophilia and child abuse) and socially condemned fantasies in a virtual reality where no real people are hurt? Or is it a step towards the complete corruption of human values and morality to make acts acceptable in a virtual world that would and should be wholly unacceptable in any world.
The theme is not a new one. It was effectively explored (in a more scientific setting) in Thomas Gibbons’ “Uncanny Valley,” which was produced by Cap Stage in 2015. The technological age is exploding right before our eyes. Yesterday’s visions of the possible are today’s reality and tomorrow’s “so yesterday.” And it is all happening with hardly even a moment’s consideration of the consequences and the morality of it all.
Ms. Haley’s attempt to present the issue at the heart of her play is not entirely successful. Part of the problem is the structure of the play. The scenes (17 in all) are relatively short and they are not directly connected in the story they tell. Thus, understanding what is happening, has happened, and to whom it has happened, is not always evident. Figuring out the puzzle of the story somewhat diverted my contemplation of the questions raised by the play’s theme. I only found myself appreciating those questions after I had left the theater. (But maybe that was Ms. Haley’s goal.)
And then there is the perverse evil and the implicit violence that are the center of the story, none of which is easy to take. It, too, detracted, for me at least, from the core theme Ms. Haley seeks to present. But the play does work to raise those questions, and answering them is not easy. So can a play that presents a fascinating premise with such a disturbing overlay work? Under the direction of Kirk Blackinton, the current Capital Stage production most definitely does.
The traditional scenic design is almost devoid of all but the bare necessities. The interrogation room consists of a small table and two chairs and not much else. The scenes in the nether feature a bed, which is used only once and then most casually, and a few other pieces of furniture. A door is also provided for those scenes where a character enters the nether. (Whether the entry is from the world or another part of the nether is not clear). What makes the scenic design interesting is the use of video screens at the back of the stage on which the interrogation scenes are shown as they occur and on which artistic images perhaps suggesting mind travel are displayed between scenes. The other production value of note, as previously indicated, is the sound design in which Mr. Lee uses a combination of music and other effects to create a sense of otherworldliness. As there isn’t a whole lot of action (on stage) for the entire 75 minutes of this one-act play, the dialogue and the actors who speak it are the key to the success the production realizes in delivering on the playwright’s intended theme.
The cast features three Actors’ Equity veterans in the male roles and two younger, but equally skilled, actors in the female roles. The younger of those two is Kylie Standley who plays the Iris character that is at the center of the story, both as the presumed object of desire for the men and as the victim (repeatedly) of their virtual fantasies. Ms. Standley may be 12 years old, but she easily passes for the nine-year old called for by the script. And her performance is largely successful, especially if some of the stiffness in her portrayal can be considered deliberate (Iris is, after all, a computer creation). Imani Mitchell effectively conveys the frustration of the interrogator of the men, as she struggles to ascertain just how evil the nether really is.
The men in the cast are led by Tim Kniffin as Sims/Papa. (Sims is his world name; Papa is his nether name.) He is the principal antagonist to the interrogator, and their dialogue presents the playwright’s underlying theme. Mr. Kniffin is impressive as both the creator of the nether and the primary motivation for the Iris fixation that all of the men appear to have. The other two men in the cast are Jeb Burris, playing an undercover investigator who may have a dual motive in his visits to the nether, and Graham Scott Green, as the despondent subject of additional interrogation who may know more than he reveals.
Yes, “The Nether” is a mystery, and when the truth is revealed in the play’s “epilogue” (so called by the playwright in her script), it only adds to the implicit message Ms. Haley intends to deliver. I’ll confess that it took me a while to figure it out, but when I did, I got think I got it.
Performances of “The Nether” continue at the Capital Stage Theater through February 25. Tickets and information are available at the box office (2215 J Street), by phone (916-995-5464) or online (www.capstage.org).