A mind-bending, futuristic thriller
|A Red Orchid Theatre presents|
Review by Catey Sullivan
Roughly five minutes into Jennifer Haley’s mind-bending, futuristic thriller, you’ll feel the hair on the back of your neck start to stand up. There it will stay for the duration of the A Red Orchid Theatre’s exquisitely skin-prickling drama. The production will leave you haunted, unnerved and pondering the sort of unanswerable questions most of us strive to keep locked away in the most inaccessible regions of our hearts.
Directed by Karen Kessler, The Nether has similarities to disturbing, not-so-distant sci-fi worlds of the “Black Mirror” anthology and the novels of Neil Gaiman. It unfolds in a familiar place, as a morality tale where the moral is as slippery, mutable and dangerous as a fanged eel.
The Nether is also a detective mystery of the first order, packed with twists you never see coming. There are crosses, double-crosses, hidden identities and a terrifying murder weapon: A gleaming ax that looms throughout in disturbingly close proximity to a rosy-cheeked little girl in a sweetly demure pinafore and petticoats. There are also monsters in the form of humans, creatures who indulge their darkest urges in a sun-drenched community where poplars whisper in the breeze and carefree children play at jacks under the benevolent love of their Papa.
It would be criminal to give away much more of the plot. Suffice to say, the 85-minute piece pulls you in with the efficacy of a black hole, and doesn’t let go. It also presents the sort of mind-boggling ethical dilemma that would have taxed Solomon. Crime and criminals populate The Nether, but their crimes are technically virtual, carried out a corner of the titular cyber world. Think Westworld, only infinitely more realistic and immersive, and you’ll have a glimmer of the allure of the cyberworld called the Nether.
Set during a time when trees have gone extinct and cotton cloth is the ultimate luxury item, the denizens of the play escape to the Nether in search of the serenity and natural beauty that the real world has long-since extinguished.
But not all of the realms in the Nether are pure sunlight, trees and happy nostalgia. The aptly named Sims (Guy Van Swearingen) has created a Nether realm called the Hideway. In this lush, beautiful landscape, pedophiles take on whatever form they choose, and do whatever they like with a rotating cast of children created solely to satisfy the depravities of predatory adults. On the grounds of a gorgeous Victorian mansion where an expansive front porch overlooks lawns and gardens so realistic you can smell the mulch, men come to rape and kill without consequence. At least that’s what Sims insists.
Detective Morris (Ashley Neal) believes that there are consequences. In the hard-bitten, poker-faced tradition of detectives dating back to Richard Diamond, she’s determined to destroy the Hideway and the man who created it. Haley alternates scenes from the sun-dappled paradise of the Nether with the brutally stark interrogation room where Morris has Sims under questioning. She’s also got a Hideway regular named Doyle (Doug Vickers) in her sights. She’s ruthlessly aggressive with both men, torturing them into submission without ever lifting a hand.
As The Nether plays out, Haley’s disturbing core question becomes inescapable. Is the Hideway preventing pedophiles from harming real flesh-and-blood children or is it nurturing their urges to do so? The realms of the Nether, after all, seem as real as the real world. They provide full-sensory experiences, from the thunk of that ax biting into a 10-year-old’s flesh to the smell of hot blood that rises up as the child lies dying.
Kessler’s ensemble is seamless as it creates a momentum that propels The Nether ferociously toward a conclusion of visceral impact. As Sims, Van Swearingen calls to mind Clarence Darrow’s “hate the sin, never the sinner” philosophy. You learn Sims is a pedophile early and see his creepy, paternalism throughout. But somehow, he’s never merely a villain. In one especially powerful scene, Sims delivers a tormented, impassioned monologue about spending his life trying to control a sickness he was born with. It’s nigh on impossible not to empathize with him in that scene, and that in and of itself is profoundly unnerving.
Maya Lou Hlava plays Iris, the Hideway child who is Papa’s favorite. Hlava’s melodiously-voiced Iris is endlessly fascinating. She radiates both the innocence of a young, sheltered child and the stony-eyed wisdom of someone far, far older. Vickers’ Doyle captures the suffocating desperation of a man caught in room where the walls are closing in. As Woodnut, Steve Schine plays a newcomer to the Hideway, and a man who arouses suspicion when he can’t quite get himself to partake of the ax. Neal’s Morris is deadpan and ruthless, both qualities you’d expect from a cop who is regularly immersed in the worst the world has to offer.
John Musial‘s scenic design and Mike Durst’s lighting design powerfully illustrate the jarring paradox that defines the Hideaway. It’s a place of sunlight and greenery and natural beauty – and a place indelibly stained by the obscene events that occur there, over and over and over again. Joe Court’s sound design is also evocative, birdsong and whispering winds juxtaposed against the deep, percussive undercurrents of a nightmare.
Kessler has shaped a vividly realized world with The Nether. The production is at once an escape from the real, and a vivid commentary on it.
The Nether continues through March 12th at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $30-$35, and are available by phone (312-943-8722) or online through OvationTix.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at ARedOrchidTheatre.org. (Running time: 85 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
behind the scenes
Karen Kessler (director), John Musial (scenic design), Mike Durst (lighting design), Joe Court (sound design), Abigail Cain (props), Tyler Smith (dramaturg), John Wilson (technical director), Stephanie Heller (stage manager), Shannon Golden (production manager) Jamie Crothers (assistant stage manager), Mierka Girten (casting director), Michael Brosilow (photographer)