Enter THE NETHER, at Manbites Dog

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.”

Nether 04- Doyle & Morris

Doyle (Michael Foley) faces tough questions from detective Morris (Caitlin Wells) about his activities In the virtual reality world of the Nether. Photo: Alan Dehmer.

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.

Nether 03 - Woodnut & Iris

In the virtual reality of the Nether, Iris (Marleigh Purgar-McDonald) teaches a new game to Woodnut (Lazarus Simmons). Photo: Alan Dehmer.

No Lullabies: The Brahms Piano Quartets at Carolina Performing Arts

Carolina Performing Arts is on a serious roll this month, with an astounding variety of concerts, several of them featuring exciting collaborations by high-level artists. Last night saw the return to Memorial Hall of Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, along with a trio of string players, to present all three of Johannes Brahms’ piano quartets in one program. Since they performed the First Piano Quartet together at the Salzburg Festival in 2010, Andsnes, German violinist Christian Tetzlaff, German violist Tabea Zimmermann and  Austrian cellist Clemens Hagen had worked on the music and planned an intercontinental tour. The Carolina presentation was the first of three US dates: tomorrow the group–now slightly altered–will play the Isaac Stern Memorial Concert in Carnegie Hall; then on to Chicago.


Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. Photo: Oezguer Albayrak.

Earlier this week, Canadian James Ehnes replaced Tetzlaff, who, according to Andsnes’ website, cancelled his participation in the US portion of the tour to stay home and await the arrival of his family’s new baby. One can only laud him for this, no matter the personal disappointment. (I’d heard Tetzlaff with the eponymous Quartet in 2012, and was eager to be again bewitched.) Fortunately Ehnes, although a decade younger, is also a virtuoso, with a pure tone and a burning feeling for the Romantic, who is hardly unacquainted with Brahms.

Making chamber music is an intimate undertaking, and it must have been difficult for all the players to make the change of violinists work for the good. Andsnes and Tetzlaff have played to together for half their lives (both are 50 this year), and of course the original group had been immersed together in this music for quite a while. Now, instead of reaping the reward of their close work, three of them had the challenge of reaching for perfection with a near-stranger, and the fourth had the joy of being the replacement, the fill-in.

For the first two movements of the No. 1, Ehnes was obviously tense, so tense that he was rolling his neck and his sound was so attenuated as to be almost inaudible. But near the end of the second movement, there was an instant of aural perfection, and you could see the looks shooting among the players, feel the tension break and the energy rise. When he laid on his bow for the Andante con moto, Ehnes’ silken sound wound smooth and balanced with Zimmermann’s sumptuous viola and Hagen’s cello sucre brûlée –dark and syrupy and deliciously crackled at the edges. From then on, the warm colors and the linear textures of the strings were in sharp focus, while from behind and between and around them cascaded the cool colors, the burgeoning crystals and tumbling rocks of Andsnes piano. The almost symphonic Andante and the closing Rondo alla Zingarese were so magnificent that much of the audience surged to its feet before the notes had ceased ringing. The players looked slightly stunned.

And it only got better after intermission.

The No. 2 paints a various terrain of emotion–love probably–with sprightly prisms of sound and shadowy velvet sonorities, with luxe textures and bits that scrape and prick. There are wonderful cello parts, and Hagen moved with delicate certainty among the muted scratching, the woeful foreboding and the joyous sensuosity. Again, the golden tones of the strings were set into maximum relief by the cool, belling piano notes. Andsnes has a touch that makes the notes swell out and hover, like ballet dancers who get a little more lift once they’re in the air. The music seems almost physical, you can feel it shaping the space, with sound and its absence. But to me, the best part is the color, and the light, that he somehow generates with his playing. In the No. 2 particularly (of the three quartets) the piano made a long series of ephemeral landscapes–meadowy, riverine, crystal-riven, boulder-strewn–metaphors for the terrain of love.

That same terrain in hindsight informs the Piano Quartet No. 3. Here are love and madness, in their awful wonder, now at a remove–passions being thought about, remembered, their powers unmitigated, but 20 years away in time. Back and forth the motifs go, echoing, alternating, circling, repeating, connecting, and the thinking brain delights, suffers and is resigned to the permanence of the past. Stunningly beautiful,  the No. 3 is the shortest of the three quartets, distilled by a mature composer still looking for the truth of the matter, and interpreted by mature players looking for the same thing. A very lucky audience in Memorial Hall heard them find it on April 7.


CPA has another very cool collaboration coming up on April 9–pianist Timo Andres and the uncategorizable Gabriel Kahane. I think this will be really interesting, along the lines of the Simone Dinnerstein/Tift Merritt collaboration (fostered by Duke Performances several years ago). On the 15th and 16th, a do-not-miss show: Lil Buck, a Jookin’ Jam, in which the Memphis wonder will dance along with an INCREDIBLE band who know all about collaboration from the Silk Road Ensemble work (Johnny Gandelsman, violin; Christina Pato, gaita; Wu Tong, sheng; and the fabulous Sandeep Das, tabla!). And get this–the same gang will play on the 17th with the sublime Abigail Washburn, banjo.

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