Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The Nether raises provocative issues about the permeable veil that separates earthly and virtual realities. Presented in a disturbingly imagined not too distant future, it is a crime story, science fiction conceit, and an exploration of the boundaries of morality, and a mediation on the qualities that make love real. Jennifer Haley's taut eighty-minute play is making its Minnesota premiere at the Jungle Theater in a muscular production. Director Casey Stangl sustains The Nether's inherent tension up to its closing scene, and masterfully balances the arguments of the case so that the audience is never certain whether the accused or the investigator is the more guilty party.
In the play, the internet has expanded its grasp over society so that most citizens spend vast amounts of time there, establishing alternative identities and living imagined lives in virtually realized realms. One such realm, The Hideaway, is a charming and tranquil place, with a bucolic garden ringed by trees (a life form near extinction in the real world) and elegant Victorian interiors. Appearances aside, The Hideaway is in fact a place where men visit (for a fee) and act on pederastic desires. Such desires are taboo in the real world, but in a place merely imagined, what can be the harm? Isn't it in fact a safety valve to allow those with such urges to release them, rather than pursue them in reality? This argument is made by Mr. Sims, creator of The Hideaway. However, the Nether's governing force views things differently. Sims is being held in a stark interrogation room to be questioned by a stone-hearted detective named Morris. Morris has already determined that Sims is guilty and is bent on shutting down The Hideaway.
In his invented realm, he is known as Papa, the benevolent host who welcomes each visitor and introduces them to a forever 10-year-old girl dressed in a virginal white dress, white patent leather shoes, pink bow and sash. Iris is the current girl on offer at The Hideaway. There have been a series of these girls, each identical, each devoted to Papa, with certitude that he loves her, as she, first with feigned innocence then with blunt prodding if needed, draws in the visitor to do "the act." There are to be no questions or attachments. However, the most recent visitor, a Mr. Woodnut, breaks through those barriers, causing disturbances for both Iris and Papa. Is love felt in a virtual realm the same as love in real life? Indeed, is virtual "life" less real than earthly life? If there are consequences for our behavior outside the Nether, can those be shed when crossing over to a digital existence?
The cast of five actors each create completely persuasive characters. Stephen Yoakam, as Mr. Sims, a.k.a. Papa, is a master of the smarmy, self-assured type of character he portrays here, one who has a fool-proof rationale for his choices. But beneath that ploy reveals a fragility that is capable of cracking like a dropped mirror. Mo Perry as Morris is relentlessly tough, unflappable in her principles, yet she too struggles to rein in a painful past. Most astonishing is Ella Freeburg, a young actor seen in such wholesome fare as The Music Man and A Christmas Carol who equally conveys child-like purity and world-weary maturity as Iris. She is as much at ease teaching her reticent guest, Mr. Woodnut, to play jacks (an especially gripping scene) as she is encouraging him to do "the act."
As Woodnut, JuCoby Johnson adds to his growing resume of distinctive performances, creating a character bent on a very specific, strategic mission who nevertheless cannot help but honor his emotions. Craig Johnson completes the cast, playing Mr. Doyle, splendidly wrought by emotional anguish as another visitor to The Hideaway, who withholds secret that would allow Detective Morris to seal her case against Sims. I cannot conceive of how any other five actors could be more excellent in these roles than those on the Jungle's stage.
Haley's writing is crisp and cutting, precise enough to enable the audience to follow her into the near-future world she has spun. Her arguments over morality and consequence pivot back and forth, stirring up strong reactions without tipping her hand toward either side. The design team has created a vision of two polar opposite worlds: the black-walled, garishly lit interrogation room is an image of the most hyper-controlled society, where free will seems to be a relic of past lives, while the synthetically soft and gentle look of The Hideaway depicts a past world that seems to draw any strength of will from those who enter it, granting liberty to any kind of fantasy.
The electronic whine and sounds of heavy gates closing with the force of massive weight in The Nether contrasts with sounds of breeze in the trees, and the lilt of glass chimes in The Hideaway; the lights harshly glaring in the Nether, soft and sedating in The Hideaway. Throughout the investigative scenes we see close-ups of the subjects projected above the stage, heightening the vulnerability that comes with the scrutiny of interrogation. Who would want to remain in a world like the Nether when they can step into The Hideaway?
My initial reaction after the much-deserved curtain call was to state to my companion "Wow, that really leaves a lot to think about," whereupon he responded with certainty as to which side of the argument was right. No contest, he felt. Until, upon further discussion, drawing in another pair of theatergoers, he admitted to a possible case for the alternative view. That is the brilliance in Haley's writing: she is not telling us what to make of the dilemma we see on stage, only raising questions about how we may address a future that may not be all that distant. We may be certain, until we are not. Certainty itself can be a moving target. At the same time, she tells a terrific story that never falters in holding our interest and keeping us guessing.
The Nether ends with a kind of coda, a replay of a pivotal scene from earlier in the play but with a major difference. Without allowing a spoiler, I encourage you to listen closely. Moreover, I encourage you to see The Nether. Despite the nature of the crimes it addresses, it is not tawdry or sensationalistic. Rather, it is deeply thoughtful and respectful of its audience's ability to consider seriously charged questions. Even if the answers are not clear, the questions may help us see what lies ahead.
The Nether continues at the Jungle Theater through October 15, 2017. 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis, MN, 55408. Tickets are $30.00 - $45.00. Seniors (60+) and students, through undergraduates, $5.00 discount. $25.00 public rush and $20.00 student rush (1 ticket with ID), for unsold seats two hours before performance at box office. For tickets call 612- 822-7073 or go to www.jungletheater.com.
Writer: Jennifer Haley ; Director: Casey Stangl; Set Design: Lee Savage; Costume Design: Mathew J. Lefebvre; Lighting Design: Barry Browning; Sound Designer: C. Andrew Mayer; Projection Design: Kathy Maxwell; Stage Manager and Properties: John Novak; Technical Director: Leazah Behren; Assistant Director: Maxwell Collyard; Production Manager: Sara Shives.
Cast: Ella Freeburg (Iris), Craig Johnson (Doyle), JuCoby Johnson (Woodnut), Mo Perry (Morris), Stephen Yoakam (Sims/Papa).