In Jennifer Haley’s vision, the internet has evolved into “The Nether,” which contains a series of “realms” where people might, say, act out their most Marquis de Sade fantasies.
The scariest thing about this production of “The Nether” isn’t its 90-minute, “Black Mirror”-like thought experiment, set in the near future, where cyberspace and meatspace keep trying to get further apart but continue to commingle in increasingly disastrous ways.
Instead, the scariest thing about this “Nether” is James Weidman’s thoroughly convincing performance as the defender of a cyberworld he’s built, and profiteered from, that is triggering unexpected meatspace consequences. (Does the name “Zuckerberg” ring a bell?)
But we’ll get to Weidman’s character in a moment.
Like any good science-fiction writer, playwright Jennifer Haley has created a plausible, internally consistent and thoroughly creepy universe. A few details: In Haley’s vision, the internet has evolved into “The Nether,” which contains a series of “realms” where people (at least we think they’re people) go to school, go to the office or, say, venture into a well-appointed Victorian mansion to act out their most Marquis de Sade fantasies: flowery wallpaper, cognac, chipper little girls in white dresses, axes to chop them up. The chopping is encouraged (as one secret Nether law-enforcement agent learns) so its residents “don’t get too attached” to their cyber companions.
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The play’s program comes with a trigger warning. “The Nether” contains no enactments of sex or violence, but Haley’s vivid dialogue, which alternates between florid euphemism and gut-punch lines, should make your skin crawl. The heart of Haley’s play is an ethical debate: Does indulging vicious fantasies make you more or less likely to enact them IRL?
Now that The Nether has become so attractive and immersive, some people in meatspace are opting to become “shades”: people who save money at IRL jobs to “cross over” and live permanently in their Nether fantasies, abdicating their meatspace bodies to life-support machines until they expire from heart attacks or diabetes or whatever. Not all of them are would-be pedophiles. Some just want to spend the rest of their days sitting by a fire with a bottle, reading Theodore Roethke poems. (That’s one way to exercise one’s economic privilege.)
Weidman plays “Papa,” a slender man in a nice suit with a reddish-gray beard. He’s carefully constructed a “realm” called “The Hideaway” — that Victorian mansion full of consenting adults playing out taboo fantasies among the flowery wallpaper, billiards, sweet songbirds, cheerful girls, bloodstained axes, etc. And, after Papa is arrested for virtual pimping of underage cyber-girls (which may or may not be against the law, since the meatspace people behind those cyber-characters may or may not be underage, and may or may not be girls), he mounts an awfully convincing argument for his troubling fantasy world.
Director Bobbin Ramsey (of The Horse in Motion, which recently staged a brilliantly immersive “Hamlet”) and designer Tristan Roberson have dreamed up a production that similarly lurches between the gentle Victorian fantasy and the harsh interrogation room where an IRL detective (Pilar O’Connell) has detained Papa. The right side of the set looks like a pleasant, though eerily whitewashed, brownstone. As it drifts to the left, it fractures into geometric shapes resembling pieces of paper tacked with Post-its, or abstracted chunks from old, 8-bit video games.
In the first scene, Papa and the detective face each other across the interrogation-room table: “I want to go home,” he says. “Which home?” the detective counters. “I need to speak with my family,” he answers with cool anger. “Which family?” she replies, with slightly hotter anger.
Their intellectual battle begins: What is home? What is real? What is crime? Is the world safer if pedophiles are acting out their urges in cyberspace?
“I am sick,” Papa confesses. “No amount of cognitive behavior therapy or relapse determent or even chemical castration will sway me from my urges toward children … I have taken responsibility for my sickness. I am protecting my neighbor’s children and my brother’s children and the children I won’t allow myself to have, and the only way I can do this is because I’ve created a place where I can be my (expletive) self!”
It’s like the Vegas P.R. campaign: What happens in The Hideaway stays in The Hideaway. Better to keep sin contained in a cyber-box than let it spill out into meatspace.
And so it goes, jumping from Papa’s cyberspace Hideaway to the meatspace interrogation room — in both realms, everybody is playing a role, but nobody is entirely sure who is whom or who knows what.
Ramsey has drawn some competent performances out of her actors, plus a few terrifyingly great ones. Weidman’s Papa is grounded and arrogant with a thin veneer of calm, like other cyber-kings from Mark Zuckerberg to Julian Assange.
Gabriella O’Fallon plays the cyber-girl Iris (Papa’s Hideaway “favorite”) with an equally harrowing performance in the opposite direction: He is smug but tortured, while she is innocence incarnate. In one exemplary scene, Papa has digitally “made” her a cake of ice that will never melt. Iris puts her ear next to it and says she hears “the sound of tiny dwarves who live in snowy mountains singing falsetto.”
Papa says he can’t hear the sound, that “it must be only for children to hear.”
“Is that why you don’t want me to grow up?” Iris asks. “Because I’ll no longer hear the singing?”
They look at each other in a moment of chilling recognition that momentarily cracks their mutual fantasy.
It’s a very through-the-looking-glass moment, fueled by superb, subtle acting. Both characters are simulacra (Iris the fake-happy child, frolicking through cyberspace; Papa the fake-calm master of his domain), but both are tortured.
Online, happy; offline, tortured — sound familiar?
“The Nether” by Jennifer Haley. Through May 14; Washington Ensemble Theatre at 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle; $15-$25, washingtonensemble.org.