Sometimes art imitates life in such a foreboding way that it leaves its audience grappling to compartmentalize the critical representation of human nature that was presented. Such is the case with Capital Stage’s production of The Nether, a dystopian thriller which transports viewers into a Matrix-like crime dramatization certain to draw strong reactions.
Written by award winning playwright Jennifer Haley and directed by Kirk Blackinton (his Capital Stage directing debut), The Nether grapples forcefully with provocative issues pertinent to our virtual-social experience in the present.
This is a future that seems uncomfortably close in proximity. The audience is quickly introduced into a setting where the lines between the real world and virtual realms are dangerously blurred. The sets range between grey, mechanical coldness of a bleak future, and the warm, inviting tones of a virtual environment where extinct trees have once again taken root and scenes are soothing in a way the real world is no longer.
In a plot that seems more predictive in nature than derived from imagination, we learn that the internet has expanded in such a way that allows citizens to spend vast amounts of time in simulated worlds, indulging in alternate identities which allow them to dapple in vices otherwise shunned in real life.
The play begins in an interrogation room, and through fast-paced dialogue it becomes apparent that something has gone horribly awry in a realm known as The Hideaway, a Victorian-themed paradise for those with pedophilic tendencies. Tim Kniffin plays Mr. Sims, the creator of The Hideaway in a convincingly calculated and aloof manner, as he condescendingly attempts to justify the value of indulging in one’s darkest fantasies without real consequence.
The detective assigned to the case (played by Imani Mitchell) is steadfast in her disgust with Mr. Sims and his imaginary world. Her frustration grows to an almost palpable level as she attempts to piece together an atrocity that appears to touch upon themes that resonate closely to her own painful past.
Also under interrogation is Mr. Doyle, a disheveled, middle-aged science teacher played by Graham Scott Green. Green brings an anguish to the vulnerability that Mr. Doyle embodies, which prompts both a mixture of pity and revulsion as the audience begins to piece together his role in the realm.
By far the most hauntingly unnerving exchanges take place between Woodnut (Jeb Burris), one of The Hideaway’s frequent guests, and Iris, a fresh-faced 10-year-old “host” portrayed with genuine innocence by the talented Kylie Standley.
It is difficult to watch Iris use the same scripted sweetness to engage Woodnut in a game of jacks as she does to reassure him that the fantasies that prompted him to visit The Hideaway are perfectly acceptable in her realm, however horrific they may be.
In all, the cast of five do well to persuasively draw the audience into a dialogue which raises arguments about morality and consequences as they pertain to technology, virtual realities and human nature.
At one point, Sims smugly states under interrogation, “Just because it’s virtual, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.”
Compelling science-fiction tells more about the present than what has yet to come. The Nether does exactly that. It sets a stage in which voyeurism is akin to sport, leaving its viewers to contemplate a slew of sticky ethical dilemmas and moral conundrums in a world where our relationship with virtual reality is becoming increasingly more complex.