The Nether takes you to a scary virtual place

Matilda Holtz in The Nether
Matilda Holtz and Warren David Keith in The Nether

Note: Becoming the urban hiker has not at all curtailed my appreciation of theater. I probably should have two blogs, but I just can’t face the added responsibility right now. Is it schizo to include walking and drama on the same blog? Let’s reframe…

In walking up two flights of stairs to reach SF Playhouse, I may have only covered a tiny portion of my 10,000-step goal; but once I experienced The Nether, by Jennifer Haley, I traveled an immense virtual distance.

Set in the possibly near future, the Nether is the descendant of the Internet, a world to which humans can retreat for brief visits. Or they may cross over to become “shades,” permanent residents of this alternate reality. Earth has lost so much of its greenery that a tree is a rare and prized commodity, and set designer Nina Ball reflects this in the opening scene, where reality is a cold, steely place.

In great contrast, the Hideaway is a Victorian dream world of flower-filled vases and genteel manners, inhabited by its creator, Papa, and an unknown number of quite young girls in prim, frilly dresses with full white petticoats.

The play opens in the middle of a heated interrogation that is meant to rattle the calm and cardiganed Mr. Sims, aka Papa, and find out if any of the activity in the Hideaway is illegal, or, more pointedly, immoral. Sims puts up a thoughtful and reasonable defense that is difficult to argue against, but the investigator has her own baggage pushing her to get the information she wants.

Thus, the central question posed by Haley’s provocative drama: when does a virtual crime become real? Several times during the play, I thought of 1984. Of course, my freedom-loving side abhors the concept of thought policing. Yet The Nether takes us into that ultra-creepy place of pedophilia where even card-carrying ACLU members are unlikely to jump to the defense of those free thinkers.

Watching this play caused me to examine the conflict between two of my deeply held beliefs: I believe that one has the right to think and act freely, so long as it doesn’t negatively affect anyone else. I also believe that men who want to have sex with little girls are depraved and unfit for civil society. But the Hideaway is specifically designed to be outside of civil society. Despite the advances in the Nether’s sensory technology, all acts inside a virtual world are still virtual.

Although there is no graphic depiction onstage of either the sex or violence that occurs behind the scenes, the hints of both make viewing the play a decidedly uncomfortable experience at times. But I think it should make one uncomfortable, and I’m willing to bet that Haley was counting on this reaction. Theater at its best is after all not only entertaining but thought-provoking.

Of course to compound the ick factor, the actresses that alternately play the 11-year-old Iris are not women dressed as girls. The night I went, 8th-grader Matilda Holtz portrayed Iris. And even though I know she was representing a virtual entity, Matilda is a living, breathing middle-school student. As a mother, I couldn’t help but wonder how embodying these roles might affect the young actresses. (The other Iris is a 6th-grader.) But as an audience member, I appreciated Matilda’s amazingly believable performance.

I commend director Bill English (who also serves as the company’s artistic director) for boldly staging a play that would have seemed like complete science fiction 20 years ago but is now a harbinger of what is probably just around the corner.

So despite Nether giving me occasional but serious shudders that made me want to shower, I’m still thinking about this play a week afterward. And I think it’s really good.

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