A dark play about the impact of technology on human relationships is now on stage in Toronto
The Nether, playing at Coal Mine Theatre, is the first joint production between Coal Mine Theatre and Studio 180 Theatre. I hope it’s not the last. It’s an exceptional production, a study in contrasts. Given that Jennifer Haley is a playwright whose work “delves into ethics in virtual reality and the impact of technology on our human relationships, identity, and desire” it’s no surprise that the play leaves us asking ourselves some tough questions.
Before you decide to see The Nether, and maybe even before you read this review, you should definitely read the Audience Advisory.
The Nether is set in a bleak, dystopian near-future; grass, trees, wine made from real grapes, and clothes made from natural fibers are a few of the very scarce luxury commodities. People can escape the misery of their daily lives by plugging into virtual reality and visiting one of the many realms created in The Nether, the successor to the internet.
In the far depths of The Nether a man known as Papa (David Storch) has created a secret realm called The Hideaway, a Victorian mansion with a garden where men can send their avatars to indulge their darkest fantasies and desires – with children.
In the real world a morally outraged Detective Morris (Katherine Cullen) is interrogating Mr. Sims/Papa about The Hideaway.
He argues that it’s better for the men to have a virtual outlet for their desires. No one is hurt. There are no real children involved, the ‘children’ are avatars played by adults who are paid. He says this is better because it can actually prevent men from acting on their urges in real life.
Storch plays Sims as arrogant, almost cocky, a man who isn’t afraid to break a few rules and who thinks that he’s the smartest person in the room. As Papa he’s the firm but loving father figure, the ideal host, the man you don’t challenge.
The children at the virtual hideaway may all be avatars but there is a real child in the play. Iris, Papa’s favourite, played by the amazing Hannah Levinson. She’s someone’s picture of innocence in a white ankle-length dress with a flounced hem and a wide blue sash at her waist and a matching big blue bow in her hair.
Over a couple of scenes we see a relationship develop between Iris and Woodnut (Mark McGrinder), a visitor to The Hideaway. The sex and violence aren’t shown but, even imagined, I found it very disturbing. Somehow it made it worse that Woodnut was tender and kind and obviously loved Iris. And exponentially worse because of McGrinder’s portrayal of a man conflicted and perhaps disgusted by his own behavior.
Detective Morris also interviews Doyle (Robert Persichini), someone who has spent a lot of time at The Hideaway and now wants to become a shade – to be there permanently, basically be hardwired into a virtual life.
Persichini’s performance as a man who has one thing left in his life – a love that he believes is reciprocated – is impressive. The only time he’s animated is when he’s talking about that. The rest of the time his body is slumped in the chair and his voice is a monotone.
Cullen plays Morris almost as if there are two detectives. The one who interviews Sims is angry and outraged and her anger seems personal, as if Sims has done something to her. I tried to guess what it was and was 100% wrong.
When she interviews Doyle she’s kinder. Still morally outraged but more concerned with trying to get him to think about his wife and daughter who he would be leaving behind.
Director Peter Pasyk has done a terrific job keeping the production at the right level of emotion and for somehow making it feel contained.
I loved Patrick Lavender’s set. For the reality scenes it was dark with a strip of coloured light down the front of each side. There were tight spotlights illuminating Morris and either Sims or Doyle, depending on who she was interviewing.
Nick Bottomly’s lush projections made up the Hideaway scenes. They were so lifelike that when I saw the first one, for a split second, I seriously wondered how they possibly built it and how they could have a fire in a fireplace on stage. They were gorgeous.
The Nether left me with questions and no answers. I’m not sure if it’s a morality play or a cautionary tale. It’s disturbing but the productions was so fabulous that I’m really pleased I saw it. It’s definitely not for everyone. If you’re planning to go, get your tickets soon. Quite a few of the performances are already sold out.
- The Nether is playing until November 4 at Coal Mine Theatre (1454 Danforth Ave)
- Showtimes are 7:30pm Tuesday through Saturday and 2:00pm Sunday
- Tickets are $42.50 with arts worker tickets at $25.00. Rush tickets $25.00 at the door limited to availability
- Tickets are available online and at the door
While nothing graphic whatsoever happens onstage, THE NETHER has violent and sexually suggestive content, including rape, murder, suicide and pedophilia, that may be deeply disturbing to some. Please be advised.
Photo of Katherine Cullen, David Storch, Hannah Levinson, Robert Persichini, and Mark McGrinder by Tim Leyes