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.

Cry If You Want To: Little Green Pig’s Knock-out CELEBRATION at Shadowbox

Photo: Alex Maness.

Thaddaeus Edwards as Gbatokai, in LGP’s CELEBRATION. Photo: Alex Maness.

When the lights came up in the Shadowbox, and the cast took its bow at the close of Celebration on February 7, the actors were met with enthusiastic applause. But after they filed off stage, no one moved for several minutes. The Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern had nailed us to our seats with this excoriating production. Adapted for English-speaking theatre by David Eldridge from the 1998 Festen, an early Danish Dogme film directed by Thomas Vinterberg, Celebration is directed here by Kevin Ewert. With a combination of boldness and reserve he makes us doubt what we already know about the plot—gives us the denial already infecting the family—seducing us with the party set-up, then wallops us with the truth. It’s a tough show, but an extraordinary work of theatre.

There are worse things a father can do to his children than rape them repeatedly, but not many. In this story, the father doubled the damage by inflicting himself on his young twins, a boy and a girl. Now he’s turning 60, and the family has gathered to celebrate. All but one—the damaged girl twin, long since grown, has recently killed herself. The boy twin returns to Denmark, to the hotel his parents own and where the children grew up, with a pair of speeches in his pocket. As the eldest son, it will fall to him to make the first toast to his father.

Overlaid scenes in LGP's CELEBRATION. Photo: Alex Maness.

Overlaid scenes in LGP’s CELEBRATION. Photo: Alex Maness.

Jaybird O’Berski leads the outstanding cast of 15. As Christian, the abused son who has lost his twin, O’Berski’s trademark intensity is put to full use, and he exhibits a masterful control, especially in contrast to his brother Michael’s (Jeffrey Detwiler) invisibly crafted wild crudity. Tamara Kissane, who is often paired with Detwiler to great effect, is a knock-out here as Mette, Michael’s energetic wife, who gives as good as she gets in the marital wars. Mette wears blood-red lipstick, an unsettling note amid the carefully designed black, white and beige world of set and costumes (Kevin Ewert and Caitlin Wells), forebodingly lit by R.S. Buck.

Dana Marks gives another powerful performance as the remaining living sister, Helene. Like Kissane, she is fearless on stage, and continues to surprise with her range. She’s brought her new boyfriend (Thaddaeus Edwards) to the party, and his presence offers an excuse for a truly shocking outburst of racist song. Edwards has little to do, but he registers polite astonishment very well, and his what-the-fuck-is-wrong-with-these-people look is priceless.

I had some quarrel with the directorial choice that made the personification of the father, Helge, very low-key. As played by Dan Oliver, Helge is almost completely without affect, and no match for son Christian in intensity. I would have preferred to see a glimpse of the brimstone lake below the placid exterior. Once only do we see his cruelty uncloaked, but his threats are weak. His fortress is his bland denial. It was a valid choice to play the character this way, but not, I think, the most powerful one possible.

Denial works much better for Helge’s wife Else, the mother of his children, because finally hers is splintered. Lenore Field gives a brilliant, riveting performance. In the final scene where she is isolated, though not banished, I could not take my eyes off of her motionless portrait of a woman whose forty years of married life has just turned to ash.

In addition to a powerful script, wonderful stagecraft and great acting by the leads and all the supporting cast, this show has something really special: the presence of a child. 5th grader Marleigh Purgar-McDonald has a natural approach and poise many an older actor might envy. Her interactions with her mother (Kissane) and her grandmother (Field) could not have been better. But it is the physical fact of her, a little girl, innocent and loving, that brings the horror of Helge’s past abuse of his own children into the clearest light. I don’t know how Purgar-McDonald is able to process the content of this play, but that she does suggests there may be a great actor in the making inside her. I intend to watch her grow at every opportunity.

This play is not an entertainment, and its content may be too hurtful for some. But it is one of the best works that The Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern has produced, and highly recommended. The show runs Feb. 13-15 and 20-22. For reservations go to https://dime.io/events/celebration, or call 919.452.2304.

Photo: Alex Maness.

Marleigh Purgar-McDonald’s Little Girl keep a wary eye on Jay O’Berski’s Christian, while Dana Marks’ Helene reads the damning letter from the dead. Photo: Alex Maness.

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