- Title: The Nether
- Written by: Jennifer Haley
- Director: Peter Pasyk
- Actors: David Storch, Katherine Cullen, Hannah Levison
- Company: The Coal Mine and Studio 180
- Venue: The Coal Mine
- City: Toronto
- Year: Runs to Nov. 4, 2018
The Nether is getting a virtually perfect production at the Coal Mine Theatre – the only question is whether you really want to sink into the dark depths of playwright Jennifer Haley’s virtual reality for 75 minutes.
This 2013 U.S. sci-fi drama imagines a future in which humans can plug all their senses into an advanced version of the internet – a future that seems barely around the corner now - and considers whether the laws and morality surrounding real-world interactions should apply to online ones.
It begins with an interrogation: A detective named Morris (Katherine Cullen) is questioning a man nicknamed Papa (David Storch) about a secret realm he has built on a hidden server.
The Hideaway, as it is called, is a Victorian mansion where one’s online avatar can visit to sip Cognac, play billiards and sexually abuse and murder children.
Under questioning by the morally repulsed Morris, Papa insists that paid adults, not real children, animate the child-like avatars in his realm – and that the Hideaway is not only not harming any real bodies or minds, but actually prevents harm by allowing a safe online space for pedophiles to satisfy their deepest, darkest desires.
In its most disturbing dramatic gambit, The Nether allows the audience a peek inside Papa’s fantasy world - where his favourite girl, Iris, greets guests and offers herself up to their destructive appetites.
While it may or may not be a real child behind Iris, the character is played by a real child actor in the play – Hannah Levinson, recently seen in musicals such as Fun Home and Matilda.
Here, Levinson again impresses with her dramatic chops as Iris forms a relationship with a male avatar named Woodnut (Mark McGrinder), whose motives for visiting the Hideaway are obscure. While the sex and violence are implied rather than shown, it’s still stomach-turning.
Meanwhile, in the real world, or what remains of it after implied worldwide environmental catastrophe, Detective Morris is also questioning a man named Doyle (Robert Persichini) who visits the Hideaway so frequently that he is planning on becoming a “shade” – an individual who leaves his corporeal body attached to a life support system and tries to permanently inhabit an online avatar.
Haley has put together a mystery here, or a riddle to unravel anyway, in what feels like an episode of Black Mirror crossed with Mindhunter. Indeed, the playwright writes for the latter Netflix show, which is about the early days of the FBI’s behavioural science unit and the invention of the idea of the serial killer – and her dialogue here is in a similar, slightly stilted, but still satisfying style. Her dramatic twists are gripping - and Storch and Persichini fill her monsters with enough vulnerability and even love to make the moral universe of her play that much more messed up.
The Nether features the most impressive design seen to date at the Coal Mine, the tiny but versatile storefront theatre on the Danforth, which has combined forces with Studio 180 for this production.
As in his recent production of Sisters at Soulpepper, director Peter Pasyk experiments with nested images beautifully. Designer Patrick Lavender’s set has its own lighting built into it, fluorescent-tube arches that help the audience easily navigate the worlds within worlds. While darkness dominates in reality, Nick Bottomley’s luminous projections give us an attractively artificial vision of the virtual. Flashes of light, rather than blackouts, facilitate magic-like scene changes.
Plays about technology date rather quickly, and there’s something about The Nether that already feels retro-futurist - as if it is considering the past decade’s hypotheticals rather than being informed by real and present dangers such as electoral hacking and the online extremism that is increasingly leaking off the internet onto our streets.
Haley, being a writer interested in disturbed individuals, clearly has some sympathy for the idea that no imagined worlds should be off-limits - but, in our present reality, or what remains of “reality,” it’s harder to see both sides of that argument even in a compelling, imagined world such as that of The Nether.