Theater Review: Mad Horse Theatre’s “The Nether” — Through a Glass, Darkly

Jennifer Haley’s play is compelling and timely because it forces us to face facts, actual and alternative.

The Nether, written by Jennifer Haley. Directed by Christine Louise Marshall. Scenic design by John Sundling. Lighting design by Heather M. Crocker. Costume and Props design by Christine Louise Marshall. Sound design by Jacob Cote. Staged by Mad Horse Theatre Company at the Hutchins School Theater, Mosher Street, Portland, ME, through February 5.

Maiya Koloski and Nick Shroeder in the Mad Horse Theatre Company production of "The Nether." Photo: courtesy of Mad Horse Theatre Company.

Maiya Koloski and Nick Shroeder in the Mad Horse Theatre Company production of “The Nether.” Photo: courtesy of Mad Horse Theatre Company.

By David Greenham

On the evening of President Donald J. Trump’s inauguration, Portland’s adventurous Mad Horse Theatre Company opened  Jennifer Haley’s The Nether. The timing was apt: the script is a dark look into an unsettling and wearingly complicated future. In our country, as in the world of Haley’s play, reality and fantasy seem to have become scrambled up. To what end? We don’t really know. Hopefully, it’s only The Nether that goes a lot deeper, and darker, into the realm of unreality.

At some point in the not-so-distant future, virtual reality leader Mr. Simms (Paul Haley) is called into a colorless room for questioning. The virtual world is now governed by laws, and Simms finds himself in the legalistic crosshairs of Morris (Janice Gardner), an “off-line” representative of whatever seems to be government or Big Brother in this futuristic society. Her interest in Simms is focused on his created experience called ‘The Hideaway.’ It’s a virtual Victorian-era outpost where ‘sensual role play’ exists. And Simms has taken on the role of leader, “Papa.”

The other character present in this gray interrogation space dedicated (apparently) to inscrutability is Doyle (Tim Ferrell), a science teacher at the end of his career. Morris presses him to reveal the ugly truth about Papa/Simms. Instead, she finds a man who is longing to leave this world behind and enter a full-time fantasy.

The Nether is the name of the electronic ‘paradise’ that comes after “that thing we called the Internet.” It offers opportunities to explore all of your fantasies through role-playing. Rooms are self-contained — or maybe not? — and all is safe because it’s only play. Or is it? After all, Simms tells us, “Just because its virtual doesn’t mean it isn’t real.”

Eventually, the audience is invited into The Hideway. But by the time we get there we’re more than a little cautious. Something’s not right, for sure. At the center of this fantasy we find Iris (Maiya Koloski), a prepubescent girl who is surrounded only by adult men. Her relationship with Papa is predatory, that’s clear enough. Normally, that would be revolting enough. However, her developing relationship with a younger man, Woodnut (Nick Schroeder) begins to suggest that we have some complicity in what is going on. The activities in The Hideaway include the best and worst of human desires, yet we watch on. After all, this is virtual reality entertainment: anything and everything is permissible. And, after each experience ends, the system is reset.

In the case of The Hideaway, the reset button turns out to be a bloody axe. Iris only feels as much pain as she wants to feel, she tells us reassuringly. The axe is a necessary conclusion, a means to avoid too much emotional connection. The game is played, the girl is disposed of, and the whole thing reboots. In a moment she’ll be just like new – an innocent and willing participant for whatever misogynistic fantasy that comes along.

In the intimate setting of the Mad Horse Theatre space, The Nether is in your face, with enough light on the audience so you can make out the reactions of others in the room. Yes, there are times when the plot feels more like a tele-play than a piece of theater (Rod Serling would have filmed it for The Twilight Zone if he could have gotten away with it ). But there is no doubt that this is a frightening and sad commentary on our techno-voyeuristic society. The play has been controversial when it has been staged in other places, and it may set off wagging tongues in Portland. Hopefully, the production will generate much needed serious conversation at a time when technology is bonding with instant gratification. Increasingly, it is beginning to feel as if we are living in some kind of artificial reality.

Haley’s play is compelling and timely because it forces us to face facts, actual and alternative. Let’s face it, The Hideaway, which is marketed as “an opportunity to live outside of consequences” would be extremely popular in today’s world. And who knows? Maybe it already is.

The Mad Horse Theatre Company production sticks with you. Director Christine Louise Marshall knows the points the playwright wants to make, and the performances are mostly strong. Haley’s ‘Papa’ has the menacing stare of a cult leader, while his Simms fends off ethical queries in a way that is both provocative and more than a little scary. Ferrell is an accomplished local comedy performer and teacher and in this, his first acting role, he is convincingly vulnerable and deeply sad. Gardner’s Morris and Schroeder’s Woodnut are less clearly fleshed out figures: more detail work on building character might have been of assistance here. In many ways, they represent the audience: its surprise, misery, and horror. The bright light of this production is 12-year-old Koloski, who maintains a heart-wrenching innocence throughout the unsavory proceedings.

The set, lighting, and costumes create a space that can be stark and cold one moment and then become as warm as a backyard on a summer night the next. Only Jacob Cote’s otherworldly sound design, with its jarring stabs, tips us off that something is radically amiss.

In the play, Papa/Simms quotes a verse by American poet Theodore Roethke:

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?

Today it seems that most of America is wondering “Which I is I?” This fine production of the teasingly disorientating The Nether suggests that there are very few easy answers once reality and identity are radically questioned. We got ourselves into this mess and, chances are, we will have the strength and clarity of vision, moral and otherwise, to get ourselves out. But let’s face it — we are probably heading for a very painful reboot.

David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.

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