Lila Schaffner & Rick Kautz in The Nether. Photo courtesy of The Liminal Playhouse.
By Jennifer Haley
Directed by Tony Prince
Review by Ben Gierhart
Entire contents copyright © 2016 by Ben Gierhart. All rights reserved.
What will they think of next? With every scientific and technological innovation, our culture seems to expand to accommodate it. The Internet and its child, social media, are testaments to that fact. Not only have they made our lives more convenient, they have also completely restructured our society, introducing new concepts and paradigms that would be unfathomable to us a mere generation ago. What will they think of next? What limitless, technological dream is just beyond the horizon? And more importantly, how will it change us? Jennifer Haley’s The Nether seeks to answer those questions.
The premise is deceptively simple at face value. In the near future, society has seen the dawn of The Nether, a sort of super-internet that allows for full immersion of the user’s consciousness into a digital realm. In more easily accessible vernacular, it’s highly advanced virtual reality.
The play begins with Morris (Vanessa Miller) interrogating a man named Sims (Rick Kautz) as a result of a crime. Morris is a detective in the department of Nether-related crimes with the police, and it is through these scenes we come to learn of a Victorian-era realm Sims has constructed called The Hideaway. In The Hideaway, Sims calls himself Papa and oversees a group of young children. In this idyllic facsimile of a time gone by, Papa has created a safe haven for pedophiles.
Sims argues that all participants of his corner of The Nether are adults and that since all the sexual fetishism at play is virtual, no physical harm actually befalls anyone. In fact, Sims goes so far as to attest that The Hideaway is preventative, allowing pedophiles to act on their desires in a safe and controlled environment before the need arises to act on them in the real world. However, Morris poses the question: If all of this is true, why has one of the regular guests of The Hideaway died?
The play follows an engrossingly complicated yet easy-to-follow structure interwoven with scenes involving Morris’ interrogating another guest at The Hideaway named Doyle (Paul Lenzi), the detailed reports of an undercover detective posing as a first-time guest named Woodnut (Neil Brewer), and Iris (Lila Schaffner), Papa’s favorite child at The Hideaway.
It would be a disservice to the prospective audience member to spoil the twists and turns of this plot much further, but suffice it to say, I have rarely been treated to such a thought-provoking piece of theater. Playwright Haley manages to throw taboo out the window with a deft slyness that is perhaps still a little unsettling but yet still manages to engage the audience and invest them in a story that could have easily closed minds before the first scene had ended.
Director Tony Prince demonstrates a keen understanding of the text as well as an appreciation of the complexity of the issue. He coaxes impressive performances from each of his actors. In particular, however, it is Kautz and Brewer who shine. Kautz’s Papa is simultaneously repulsive and endearing, a paradox that is appropriate but astonishingly difficult to pull off. Brewer’s character arc is seemingly more traditional, but requires an equally skilled hand. The ocean of despair and temptation building with each of Woodnut’s scenes is palpable and impressive to watch. It is also worth noting that young Lila Schaffner as Iris does a phenomenal job in not only grasping a difficult and complex subject matter, but maintaining a facade of youth over a wisdom beyond her years. It’s not a performance I think many young people could give, but the ease with which she delivers may belie her skill and potential for most audience members.
If there are any negative aspects to this production, they are small. The transitions between scenes in the real world and scenes in The Nether were often filled with an electronic “computer login” sound effect. In my opinion, the much older look of The Hideaway was enough to establish setting, and I feel that adding the sound effect was a missed opportunity to play with the audience’s expectations of what is real and what is not. There were also a few moments sprinkled throughout the show that I felt could have benefitted from a touch more subtlety, but the end of the play was nonetheless an effective emotional wallop. Nitpicking aside, there really is no reason to miss out on this one-of-a-kind play. It’s exactly what good theater should be since – like technology and science –the arts seek to answer who we are, where we came from and where we are going as a civilization. If you were a little squeamish from the plot description, then perhaps you would benefit from attending the most.
September 1, 2, 3, 8, 9, & 10 at 7:30 pm
September 4 & 11 at 2:00 pm
The Liminal Playhouse
At The Henry Clay Theatre
604 South Third Street
Louisville, KY 40202
Ben Gierhart is a local actor, playwright, and director who has worked with several companies in town including The Bard’s Town, Pandora Productions, Savage Rose, and Centerstage. Ben serves on the board and in the acting ensemble for The Bard’s Town Theatre, and he is also a founding member of the Derby City Playwrights, a collective dedicated to creating new and exciting plays in Louisville.