Theater Review: “The Nether” — Virtual Reality Fantasyland

Flat Earth Theatre has made a bold and relevant programming choice, taking on a play that examines how technology can both shape our illicit desires and fulfill them with ease.

The Nether by Jennifer Haley. Directed by Sarah Gazdowicz. Staged by Flat Earth Theatre in the Black Box Theatre at the Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA, through June 23.

Julia Talbot and Bob Mussett in “The Nether.” Photo: Jake Scaltreto.

By David Cruz

The particular technological dystopia depicted in Jennifer Haley’s The Nether is uniquely disturbing. And that may account for why the Flat Earth Theater’s marketing of the production is so fuzzy. But it must be said upfront that, for all of the script’s exploration of virtual reality, its script’s central subject is viscerally upsetting: The Nether contains discussion of and allusions to the sexual assault of children.

Of course, the ‘children’ aren’t really children. The eponymous Nether is a virtual reality that evolved from today’s Internet, a world where consenting adults can anonymously log in, choose their own appearance, and partake in any fantasy of their choosing. (Efforts to create VR pornography are already underway.) The play concerns itself with a particular corner of cyberspace called the Hideaway, which appears to visitors as a decadent Victorian manor where children live under the watch of a man called Papa (Bob Mussett). Some users choose to engage in the abuse of children, others pretend to be the children themselves. All the participants are consenting adults who spend up to fourteen hours each day logged into the Nether, indulging in their worst instincts.

The stated objective of the Hideaway is to create a world without consequence. Even though it seems real to users, it is an illusion: no children are hurt and the visitors have had their urges satisfied. Papa maintains his enclave by enforcing a strict set of rules to protect users’ privacy, as well as to prevent them from becoming too attached to this alternative world. The attraction for many is emotional and obsessive; they prefer the exciting interactions and relationships of the Nether to their banal lives in the physical world.

The production begins listlessly in the real world, as Detective Morris (Regine Vital) questions two men in one-on-one interviews, hoping to learn more about the Hideaway (whose actives are illegal because of its immoral content). One of the men turns out to be Papa, the other is a frequent visitor of the Hideaway, a man named Doyle (Jeff Gill). These interviews fall into the familiar tedium of a police procedural: the suspects act as though they’re too smart for the cops and Morris maintains a hard edge, even as the interrogation shifts from details of the Hideaway towards the ways in which technology is contributing to moral decay.

The interviews begin to cut away to scenes from the Hideaway. A federal agent, Thomas Woodnut (Arthur Gomez) has infiltrated the realm with the intention of gathering evidence. In the process, he develops romantic feelings for Papa’s favorite girl, Iris (Julia Talbot). As the cop becomes more attached, he shares personal information and, in turn, he learns surprising facts about Iris’ and Papa’s true identities. As Woodnut breaks the Hideaway’s rules, Papa begins to slowly lose control of his dominion. Once the heightened emotions of Hideaway are exposed in real world, the production really takes off.

With The Nether, Flat Earth Theatre has made a bold and relevant programming choice, taking on a play that examines how technology can both shape our illicit desires and fulfill them with ease. The pacing and tone of the staging is poky at the start but, eventually, the performances from the cast members become suitably impassioned. Gomez stands out as Woodnut, a man who initially has no interest in the Hideaway’s illusions, but whose temptation grows the more time he spends there. Talbot, a graduating senior at Medford High School, is also excellent, convincingly pulling off the role of an adult who is pretending to be a child.

Kudos to Jennifer Haley for writing a play that tackles a difficult subject. But the production’s attempt at making Papa sympathetic raises some awkward questions about the show’s intent. Papa may claim that what happens in the Nether has no consequence but, as Detective Morris insists, “If there has been no consequence, there has been no meaning.” In fact, Papa ends up contradicting himself, claiming that the Hideaway has positive social effects: it allows pedophiles to indulge in their desires, and in so doing, prevent Papa and others like him from acting on their urges in the real world. In addition, his patrons form meaningful relationships in the Hideaway. Papa would have you believe that only good comes from his actions.

Perhaps in order to be even-handed, The Nether seems to endorse Papa’s argument, to credit the emotional value of his fantasies. The production does this by downplaying the negative implications of Papa’s world. Woodnut’s romantic feelings for Iris give credence to the argument about meaningful connections, but the horrible acts the agent undertakes at Papa’s behest are ignored. When tragedy ultimately arises, it’s due to the meddling of the police — not a natural byproduct of the Hideaway. The script avoids a number of hard truths: the Hideaway is a harem; Papa, a pimp. Woodnut’s corruption is a warning that confusing reality with fantasy leads to moral degradation, to destruction rather than creation. Audiences should keep that in mind as they consider The Nether’s worship of electronic illusion.

David Cruz is a radio producer and civic technologist. He has been an associate producer at Human Media and Programming Director at WYBCX Yale Radio. He currently works for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

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