I’ve been trying to figure out, for four days now, what to say about The Nether, Jennifer Haley’s 2012 exploration of the intersection of physical and virtual realities, on stage at Manbites Dog Theatre through April 23. What to say, that is, beyond “Go see this, if you like to think.”
The Nether takes place in the very near future, or possibly the present; the nether is a more highly realized version of what we now call the internet, and its seductively programmed fantasy realms are somewhat subject to regulation and control by a shadowy branch of government. The play’s concerns are moral and ethical quandaries associated with human desires, couched in a suspenseful police-procedural format. Detective Morris (Caitlin Wells) suspects Sims (Michael Brocki) of running a fancy child prostitution racket in his nostalgically detailed virtual realm, in which he is Papa. Visitors log on to the Nether, and once vetted, pay to enter Papa’s world and take up a role there. The attraction, besides comfort, anonymity and lush surroundings, is Iris, a very young girl (the remarkable Marleigh Purgar-McDonald). You can do anything to Iris—she’s virtual—and she’ll regenerate.
Detective Morris, however, believes real harm is being done, and she’s out to stop it. If she can’t crack Sims, she’ll go for a user, and make him her tool, dragging Doyle (Michael Foley) into her office again and again until he gives her enough information that she can send agent Woodnut (Lazarus Simmons) into Papa’s pretty world undercover.
Is harm done by the manipulation of images or by role playing online? (And delicious it is that a play should ask, especially in a production featuring one actor working under an alias, and another who’s previously been willing to take her clothes off on stage, but not to have her performance photograph put online.) If so, where is it done, and how? Could it be wrong to imagine oneself into a world that matches one’s interior vision of delight? You can see how these questions relate not only to child pornography, but many transgressive behaviors; and to any created “world,” whether online, in an art form, or even entirely within one’s head. Haley also worries at the question of whether there can be any satisfaction (for the real human) taken in performing (virtual) actions without consequence–and questions that lack of consequence. These are just the beginnings of the philosophic mazes into which the play leads.
Jules Odendahl-James directs with marvelous restraint, eschewing histrionics in favor of a cool clarity that makes the unfolding story, with its many twists, continually surprising. It would be easy to make this play too racy, or too earnest—either way, dismiss-able—but Odendahl-James makes the longings real, the logic inexorable, and the result profoundly moving. Each character’s point of view is so compelling, and the acting is so sympathy-inducing as the individual stories unfold, that one must constantly revise one’s response. Michael Foley as Doyle was particularly fine in the Sunday matinee performance. Marleigh Purgar-McDonald, a 7th grader, has to be seen to be believed. Hers is a delicate, difficult role as Iris, and her combination of innocence and sang-froid was quite unnerving.
The bifurcated world of the play is well expressed in Sonya Leigh Drum’s set, Austin F. Powers’ very good lighting, and Joseph Amodei’s sound design, and the characters are tellingly and interestingly dressed by Ashley Nicholl Owen. Altogether, this is a completely satisfying production. This is the kind of ambiguousness that all art should aspire to—not confusion, obfuscation or coyness, but an ambiguousness that allows for the difficulty of knowing or doing the “right” thing, and the uncertainty of all judgment in the face of the desire for love.