A disciplined and provocative thriller, The Nether keeps revealing new aspects of its dark design. What starts out as a science fiction police procedural turns into a moving mediation on identity and control in human relationships.
Once again, the Jungle Theater under artistic director Sarah Rasmussen demonstrates an ability to find new and creative uses for its beautifully focused space. Director Casey Stangl's production of Jennifer Haley's 2013 play opens with a man and a woman facing off against a stark black background, but Lee Savage's set eventually discloses the haunting surprises the plot demands.
The woman is Morris (Mo Perry), a detective who polices the expansive Nether. That realm is what the internet has evolved into: a virtual reality where an increasing majority of the world's citizens spend most of their waking hours working, going to school, and participating in leisure activities.
The multisensory nature of the Nether has made a present-day conundrum even more pressing. When should activities that are forbidden in real life also be forbidden in simulated form? Morris is working to purge the Nether of something that latter-day authorities also widely forbid: virtual but lifelike child pornography.
It's quickly clear that the man being interrogated, code-named "Papa" (Stephen Yoakam), is accused of facilitating simulated pedophilic contact in his misleadingly bucolic online "Hideaway." The rest of Haley's tightly structured play reveals how Morris gathered her evidence, and what comes of her investigation. The imposing Yoakam barks defensively at his interlocutor, but Perry portrays Morris as a stridently confident cop who won't back down.
Given the subject matter, a particular tension springs from the fact that while the Nether is virtual, the theater is not. Haley leverages the fact that the stage itself is a site of imagined realms, notably by calling for an actual little girl to play Iris, one of the children who Papa's clients seem to meet. (Two such clients are played by JuCoby Johnson and, writhing under Morris' questioning, Craig Johnson.)
The presence of eerily poised young actor Ella Freeburg serves as a constant reminder that while The Nether may be science fiction, the questions it raises are very real.
The production toes the edge of the unspeakable activities that Iris politely invites Hideaway visitors to engage in, but it's genuinely shocking in the mere suggestion. One reason the play works is that Haley's intelligent script points toward a wide array of difficult questions in the context of its gripping, quick-moving plot. As we learn more about the specific nature of Papa's enterprise, the play delves into desires that go beyond those of the flesh.
If this sounds difficult to pull off... it is, and some theatergoers on Wednesday night were audibly shocked. ("That was weird!" declared one woman after the curtain call.) Thanks to Stangl's leadership of a top-notch creative team, though, The Nether succeeds. It's an unsettling experience that constitutes a particularly powerful use of theatrical tools to explore increasingly pressing questions about where we are, and where we're going.
IF YOU GO:
Through October 15
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