Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Also see Patrick's review of Her Portmanteau
Sims (Chris Schloemp) has engineered the most advanced virtual world in his time, known as the Hideaway, a Victorian home complete with sensory details such as music from a Victrola and the kick of aged Cognac. Logging in to the Nether (what used to be called the internet), one can create an avatar and visit the Hideawaythat is, if one is interested in being able to virtually molest and murder children.
It's important to note that there is no actual molestation or murder depicted, but there may be discomfort from even the suggestion or description of these acts. Knowing they're committed virtually, and not "in-world," may allow enough distancing to move past the acts themselves and consider the ethical questions Haley raises. No doubt the playwright chose the most clearly heinous of crimes as the test case for possible intervention.
Detective Morris (Leila Rosa) interrogates Sims, arguing with him over his philosophical justifications for his virtual debauchery. She also interrogates Mr. Doyle (David L. Yen), a participant in the Hideaway, hoping to obtain details about Sims that will enable her to arrest him for his Nether world and prevent him from logging in ever again.
In between interrogations we witness scenes in the Hideaway, as Morris' secret agent Mr. Woodnut (Jared N. Wright) attempts to gather evidence against Sims. Woodnut is introduced to the favorite girl, Iris (Lana Spring), but his reluctance to participate "fully" in the program flags him as suspect.
Sims' most compelling argument is that by fulfilling his need, or his "sickness," online, he is sparing children in the real world from his affliction. But Morris counters that he is creating real damage and hurt in the virtual world without being aware of it, fiercely arguing against his so-called right to create such a space. Ethical questions abound, and they urge debate about our current inability to police the internet. At what cost do we maintain a totally free and unhampered internet, as it was intended?
A relatively slow and ponderous first act is heavy with exposition and debate; after intermission there's a much livelier second act, where the dots connect, and surprising revelations deepen the discussion and lay waste to obvious solutions.
Director Argo Thompson has cast well. Schloemp is superb as Sims, giving him nuance and credibility, an oddly sympathetic twist despite his proclivities. Yen is touching and layered in Doyle's uncomfortable shoes, and Wright capably delivers a conflicted soul confounded by terrible self-discovery. Spring, an adult playing an 11-year-old girl, gives a stunning performanceangelic, disarming, and utterly believable. Rosa appears to have some difficulty as the detective, which makes more sense once we get to the second act, where her true self emerges.
Thompson's scenic design suffers from the split stage. Would that we had a clearer portal into the Hideaway by better stage arrangement, which might have given lighting designer April George better angles for that glorious sunlight, better differentiation between the two worlds. Splitting the play into two acts does it a disservice, when a taut 80 minutes would pick up the pace throughout and build better momentum toward the surprising resolution. Sandra Ish does beautifully with the period costumes and the dark palette of the modern world, but Rosa's shoes stand out as awkward and heavy. Joe Winkler's sound design relies mostly on Philip Glass, nicely atmospheric but sometimes distracting or sleep-inducing.
The Nether isn't a play for everyone. Its topical resonance ensures lively discussion post-show, if one can tolerate the provocative material.
The Nether, March 24, 2019, at Left Edge Theatre, Studio Theater, Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, 50 Mark West Springs Rd., Santa Rosa CA. Tickets $25.00-$40.00 can be purchased online at www.leftedgetheatre.com or by phone at 707-546-3600