Review: ‘The Nether’ at San Francisco Playhouse (****)

by Charles Kruger
Rating: ****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

Woodnut (Joshua Schell) is uncomfortably intrigued by the child Iris (Carmen Steele) in "The Nether," an virtual world designed to appeal to pedephiles.
Woodnut (Josh Schell) is uncomfortably intrigued by the child Iris (Carmen Steele) in “The Nether,” a virtual world designed to appeal to pedophiles.

 

This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This fascinating, disturbing, even distressing play will certainly creep you out while exerting its fascination. Papa has created an online world for pedophiles.

Papa claims that nobody is hurt, and that the online world provides a safe space for people to act out fantasies without consequences or harm. Is that really possible?

You may be ambivalent about trigger warnings, but it probably isn’t a bad idea in this instance. If you have doubts about seeing this subject handled onstage, consider carefully before attending.

“The Nether” is set in a not-too-distant future in which most people spend most of their lives on the internet. (For some communities, that future is now.) Anybody can set up a virtual world within “The Nether” — in fact, most people, we learn, receive their entire educations there.

The play opens with “Papa” being interrogated by an internet police officer, concerned about Papa’s creation of an online world for pedophiles. The powers-that-be want to shut the operation down. Papa, however, argues that he is doing good work. If it weren’t for his web world, he might be molesting real children. Images, he insists, do not have real world consequences. He challenges his interrogator: “Don’t tell me you’ve never fucked an elf!”

It isn’t long before the set of the interrogation room opens up to reveal Papa’s online world, where we see him interact with the “child,” Iris. Iris is played by a 12-year-old actress (an excellent Carmen Steele who performs alternately with Matilda Holtz), but in the world of the play, Iris is actually an online avatar for an elderly man sitting at a computer screen. Papa (who is the same in both the real world and the virtual world) introduces a virtual visitor, Woodnut (Josh Schell), who is encouraged to sexually use Iris. As audience, what we see is a 12-year-old actress engaged in sexual flirtation with an adult man, although there is no overt sexual activity. (The twist here is that the actress is actually playing the role of an adult man masquerading online as a 12-year-old girl. Like some relationships on Facebook, “it’s complicated.”)

This is very disturbing stuff. The acting is superb. Nina Ball’s sets are astonishing: we fully inhabit the virtual world of “The Nether” and the scenes shift from one setting to another as seamlessly as they would on a computer screen. But what are we really seeing? Who is who? Are we dealing with imaginary characters or real people? Are there real world consequences for online interactions? Is it possible to act immorally in the virtual world? Who gets hurt? Is anonymity a right in these contexts?

After the opening night performance, we encountered a fine actor and friend, the right type to play the part of “Papa.” He agreed it is an excellent and remarkable play. But when asked, “Would you act in a production?” he replied, “Hell, no!”

“The Nether” will make you squirm.

“The Nether” continues at SF Playhouse through March 5, 2016. For further information, click here.

IF YOU ENJOY READING THEATRESTORM, PLEASE CLICK HERE TO EXPRESS YOUR APPRECIATION.

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“The Nether” by Jennifer Haley. Produced by San Francisco Playhouse. Director: Bill English. Set: Nina Ball. Props: Jacquelyn Scott. Lighting: Michael  Oesch. Sound: Theodore J. H. Hulsker. Costumes: Brooke Jennings.

Cast:

Iris: Matilda Holtz & Carmen Steele (alternating). Sims: Warren David Keith. Doyle: Louis Parnell. Morris: Ruibo Quian. Woodnut: Josh Schell. 

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