All Things Entertaining and Cultural

The Nether — InterAct Theatre at The Drake

nether -- interiorIn the course of writing a play about keeping confidences, the modern penchant for intervention, and related issues of trust and meddling, Edward Albee challenges his audience’s possible disdain — acceptance? — for betrayal and self-righteousness by having his lead character indulge in an act most would regard as undeniably taboo, bestiality. A man falls passionately in love with a goat and regularly consummates his affection, behavior he considers harmless but that causes predictable grief when a friend to whom the man confesses his amorous pleasure informs the man’s wife. Out of consideration for the man, of course. (No one speaks for the non-consenting goat.)

Albee’s devilish game is to take one set of outrages, revealing a secret and subjecting the source of that secret to interrogation, lecture, and therapy, supposedly out of love, and play it against an ostensibly deeper outrage, romantic copulation with an animal. Does the “crime” justify the snitching? Is the friend doing the man a favor by exposing him? Should one mind one’s own business? Does the man need help? Is it imperative that anything is done?

Jennifer Haley presents a similar conundrum in her play, “The Nether,” which addresses whether official authority, i.e. a government or a body that legally oversees and can limit areas of human behavior, should have power to curtail one’s access of a public commodity if it objects to the use one is making of that commodity. Like Albee, but working in the opposite direction, exposing totalitarian strong-arming before revealing the offense, Haley offers a case in which we feel outrage over ham-handed censorship and the seeming ruination of a man and his fortune by a power that is but have to measure how incensed or revolted we are ready to be when we realize the person to be ruined is a serial pedophiliac.

Where does one’s sympathy lie when the closing of a virtual portal and the eternal banning of its leader and operator is weighed against the end to regular and violent child abuse? Do we side with authoritarians, at least this one remarkable time? Or do we root for regulations to rid the virtual realm of a virulent practitioner of the abhorrent?

Haley stacks her deck in several ways. She presents a real world, one in which an authority can persecute/prosecute a citizen or alleged corrupter of a system, and virtual world in which everything is make-believe but has the dimension and tactile quality of the actual world. In others words, you can create a virtual world and not only enter it as a character but live in it and participate in it palpably, as if it was genuine.

Sims’s offense occurs in both. In the real world, Sims sits in a private, solitary room in which he operates a device, the personal computer of his age, that is tied to an off-shore server (on a submarine) and broadcasts internationally via The Nether, a network that makes the current Internet seem antediluvian and miniscule by comparison. The year is an unspecified date in the far future, say 2080, and The Nether is a political entity of its own, with rules and laws one transgresses at the peril of being “unplugged,” unable to do business and live a virtual life by accessing the vast resources of The Nether.

As we have web sites and blogs, The Nether is divided into realms. Any person who can build one and keep one going can have a realm. The Nether has the right to monitor such realms and annihilate any it deems unfit, unsavory, or uncooperative in living up to the strict moral standards of The Nether.

The Nether covers no physical space. It is a shared technological universe, on Earth and governed by some august group granted the power to decide access or not.

So, Haley can arrange things as she pleases, much as the keeper of a realm in The Nether can build his or her own virtual world.

The child abuse that seems so appalling is not taking place. Except in the minds and physical feelings of the person, adult or child, participating in it. The pedophile can indulge his or her yen to have sex with, molest, torture, or hurt children. The children in Sims’s realm are only images, but so advanced the child seems to exist as a corporeal, social being, and the pedophile gets all of the emotional and physical satisfaction he or she craves.

Because the people populating Sims’s realm are images, no matter sensate, tangible, or touchable, they are like the characters in cartoons that can endure crushing, flattening, and even stabbing or killing and bounce back to have another adventure. No actual person is touched, yet the user has the satisfaction of having had his way with a child.

Virtual or real, it’s still a bit sick. Just because one can fulfill their pedophilic jollies without harming a real child doesn’t make the practice any more abominable. Even the happiness of the children in Sims’s realm does not ameliorate the fact they are being molested, raped, and murdered on a regular basis.

Haley sets up the worst of situations. She also, at first, makes you sympathetic with Sims.

He has been called to answer charges he is operating a prurient, violent, criminal realm on The Nether. He is asked the location of his server and told his world will be shut down by some means or other.

He argues his realm is harmless, that all who enter it do so voluntarily and can leave as easily as they arrived if something displeases them or goes further than their taste can tolerate. He says no one his realm is real. They don’t even have to approximate the image they have in life. An adult can enter a child. An older man can participate as a younger, idealized version of himself, a woman can be a man, a man a woman, a codger a little girl. It’s all one. You choose your image as you begin the game of being in the realm, just as you choose a Monopoly marker or a weapon in Clue. It’s all for fantasy. It’s all for fun. And another of Sims’s arguments is it decreases incidence of actual molestations because they person who craves such activity can act it out harmless in the polite, idyllic setting Sims created.

The audience has a lot to judge. Sims has made a seemingly innocent haven for the depraved. It has an Edwardian setting, a garden next to a mansion, a genuine tree for an extra-virtual touch. The bedroom where a little girl, Iris, about age 11, sleeps, and entertains guests, has a bow window. On Melpomene Katakalos’s invitingly springlike set that reeks bucolic peace and elegance, you think you’re watching through a gazebo. Walks between Sims, called Papa, and Iris resemble the relationship between a father and daughter. Sims, dressed in finery from 100 years ago, is the only one who appears in his realm as he appears in life. Iris is the persona of another game player. Another guest, Woodnut, is the projection of a woman. Iris, played by the remarkable, ingenuous Emi Branes Huff, seems like a precocious girl with ready conversation and social graces whom charm is accentuated by the bowed, printed dress in which Janus Stefanowicz so brilliantly costumes her. She doesn’t have a hint of sexiness. Nor does she try to counterfeit. Yet, she’ll call attention to the ax over the door of her bedroom and ask in a simple matter-of-fact tone if her guest, in this case Woodnut, would like to murder her now. She reminds Woodnut she will not really be killed, and he can visit her again and even repeat the beheading. (Symbolic?)

The main events as Sims’s paradise are foul. You don’t have to be goody-goody, politically correct, or rock-ribbed moralistic to condemn them or be put off by them. Some standards prevail even in liberated times, and a disdain of child abuse is high among them.

Haley presents each scene of pedophilia, which invites and, by Sims’s own mandate, is expected to lead to abuse, as nonchalantly as Iris or Sims go about their business in the latter’s lovely and culturally pleasant realm. While Albee used wit, satire, and strategic outrage to comment on meddling in “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” (the subtitle alone telling you all begins as a joke), Haley is more melodramatic and serious. Also, she begins “The Nether” without telling you why Sims is being questioned and threatened with web annihilation in a world that exists mainly on the web, or The Nether.

Wearing an outfit that makes her look like a Maoist interrogator, a black jacket-like blouse buttoned to the top and black pants, Bi Jean Ngo’s Morris looks as if she’s dogging an innocent but non-conforming man for creating a realm that is not consistent with The Nether’s values.

The Nether, while allowing a lot of variety, is as totalitarian as any Communist or Fascist government — Both are the same to me; dictatorship being the evil, no matter which political wing it espouses. — and, as Morris explains things, as irrational and punitive.

The issue seems to be freedom to put whatever one wants on The Nether, a warren of virtual realms that has generally replaced life and behavior as we know. Most people are on chairs in rooms in their own homes living fantasies in realms that let them participate and feel as if they were really experiencing what they’re imagining. A lot of it is porn gone exponential. Some is a perpetual “Truman Show” in which you can choose your world, partaking and removing yourself at will.

Censorship is repugnant. Morris’s persecution of Sims is ugly. As is her badgering of Doyle, a university professor who frequents Sims’s realm and is offered exoneration if he will give evidence against Sims.

All seems poisonous, especially since Sims, dressed in his Edwardian suit, seems so refined as played by Greg Wood. He is easily, except for Iris, the most admirable person on stage. His protests of innocence only add to the negative reaction to Morris as a government weasel that wants to pronounce her righteousness rather than listen to logic or just leave the governed alone.

Then comes the introduction to Sims’s and you see how you a fooled into supporting someone who is doing something that is actually harmless, being virtual, but is foul in that is invites such distasteful, objectionable practice. Virtual or not. Look at porn is different from committing the acts in porn (even if I understand why there’s a special category that proscribes child porn), and between consenting adults, what is the harm if people enact the fantasies they see?

But we are talking about children, and we both a vulnerable and cannily seductive Iris, who, again, is not a real little girl but the virtual persona of a participant in Sims’s game realm and, therefore, a pedophile interested in sex with children.

You see all the complications, and it’s obvious by now how many layers Haley’s play has and how fascinating it is to delve into what is happening and what is actually being said.

Haley, like Albee, uses an extreme situation to discuss a different topic. Excusing or allowing pedophilia — virtual, I know — is placed against control, and censorship, of the web, always a hot-button issue as the web remains relatively free, and officials are always rumored to be planning to toy with it, restrict it, or make it a governmental province instead of the free-wheeling place it is.

To say “The Nether” is thought=provoking is to understate. Look how much I’ve said about it while marginally touching on Seth Rozin’s production for InterAct.

Jennifer Haley is not Edward Albee. “The Nether” has the wrenching realization of “The Goat,” but it lacks the humor and satire that makes “The Goat” so morally confusing, textured, and ultimately sad.

“The Nether” seems more like a gimmick to offset a detestable situation by positing whether policing a jurisdiction, such as The Nether, to eliminate something more detestable. War is dreadful, but what alternative do you have when someone in coming at you with an armed attack?

For all the thinking about all “The Nether” presents and suggests, the moral debate about whether we want authority to stop the philosophically harmful — and even there I’m making a judgment about virtual behavior that might be, because it is feigned, none of my business — is more engaging that Haley’s play.

Even in Seth Rozin’s classy, beautifully conceived, and well-performed production.

As a play, “The Nether” is more a curiosity than anything else. You want to see the realm Haley invented for Sims and how it works. You’re taken with the sweet insouciance of Iris, especially before you know she is a projection in a projection and before you learn who is projecting her.

Once you understand it all, it’s really Rozin’s fine production, that even makes the tawdry seem unnervingly pristine, that keeps you going.

The basic details of The Nether and its level of virtual reality fascinate. The play doesn’t always. It depends more of you wanting explanations and to see how the last information you learned transfers to what you see in Sims’s realm. Even though Haley keeps surprises in store, “The Nether” dulls as it proceeds. It’s after you leave it, the questions about rigid control and moral judgment and the idea that to support Sims is on some level to accept pedophilia, and murder, however virtual, which is difficult to reconcile even in my staunchly libertarian mind.

Pedophilia is a different taboo from bestiality. “The Goat” only requires removing the object of a man’s affection from his access. Not that I want to parse horrors, but pedophilia is more insidious and more of a dangerous craving. Haley has crossed a line. She has chosen the wrong taboo to challenge whether censorship is more hateful than what is being censored.

Engaging as “The Nether” can be, as a good as Rozin’s production is, the play misses the mark by asking its audience to dismiss pedophilia, again however virtual, as something that can be relegated to a private game in a private virtual realm. Even when it’s literally harmless, pedophilia is too serious to take lightly. Especially when Haley established the pedophile’s world as more polite, more affectionate, more nurturing, and more genteel than the real world. Sans pedophilia, Sims’s universe seems ideal, filled with sun, music, nature, and amiability. With it, it’s the sow’s ear masquerading as a silk purse.

Haley’s play takes on the tawdriness of the behavior than takes place in it. It is unseemly watching the scenes between Iris and Woodnut. Not just disconcerting or uncomfortable but tawdry. Haley is a decent craftsman. Drama and curiosity build to a high point (before they quickly fade), but the subject matter leaves the bad taste in the mouth, In addition to provoking thought, “The Nether” makes you want to take a shower, especially since Sims and company go about their business with such ease and contentment.

As creative as Haley gets, and no matter how well she covers her bases, her play fizzles early, and the opprobrium attached to pedophilia overrides any points Haley makes about censorship, innocence, harmlessness, and freedom to use The Nether to project anything we want. Yelling “fire” in a crowded place is an exception to freedom of speech. Even if one only participates by election, giving people the chance to kill, molest, and rape, especially children, seems something we might want to prohibit. (Even though, thinking further, the killing is already an integral part of many popular video games. I guess the line is drawn by the killed being cartoons rather than virtual figures that give one the actual sensation of killing.)

Rozin’s production extends “The Nether’s” chances of being enticing.

Melpomene Kalakatos’s set is a gem. It soothes to look at it and completely obscures the purpose of and practices on Sims’s virtual estate. Janus Stefanowicz’s costumes also give the illusion of taste, gentility, and class. Sims’s realm is of another era, a more formal, elegant era, and the early Edwardian suits worn by Greg Wood as Sims and Griffin Stanton-Ameisen as Woodnut are stylish and handsome. Iris’s dress, a black print on white with rows of parallel black bows running down its front is perfect for the groomed, cultured little girl Iris is.

Emi Branes Huff is marvelous as Iris. A child herself, Branes Huff conveys Raphaelite innocence even when she’s quietly cajoling Woodnut to join her in intercourse and murder her. Branes-Huff projects a natural sweetness and the traits of an accomplished, intelligent girl. Even the tone of her readings is perfect, the voice being light, the impression being happy. You see both girlish naivety and cultivated worldliness, the latter explained when Iris’s identity is made clear. Branes Huff’s Iris is the articulate, informed child you delight in encountering. She is not Lolita or a youngster who tries to be sexy beyond her age. She is well-mannered and playful, all of which makes you want to protect her rather than relishing watching her ply her subtly seductive craft on Woodnut.

Greg Wood gives Sims definite and proper stature. He is a well-appointed, cultured man about town who commands respect on sight and seems a pillar of amiable rectitude. Wood is effectively appalled and resistant to Ngo’s grilling as Morris. He is sunnily paternal and proud of his accomplishments when you see him with Iris. He’s righteously combative when Morris continues her persecution and calmly resigned when Morris says something that lets him realize what she knows and how she knows. While keeping some level of cool throughout, Wood goes through a gamut of behavior and emotion in a way that lets you finally know Sims and admire his savoir faire.

Bi Jean Ngo is dogged as Morris. She is on to some misuse of The Nether, and she is going to accuse, dig, and ptove until she can put an end to Sims’s juvenile sex refuge.

Griffin Stanton-Ameisen gives a handsome performance as Woodnut, who seems content to dabble with a friendly relationship with a child but is goaded by Iris and Sims to carry his fantasies and desires further. His Woodnut is the height of masculine chivalry, always polite, always soft-spoken, always tender, and mildly shocked at all Iris proposes.

Tim Moyer, absent for too long from local stages, is affecting as Doyle, a scholar who has fought a lifelong craving for sexual contact with girls younger than teens. Moyer is especially good at showing Doyle’s shame and his reluctance to incriminate Sims no matter what Morris promises.

“The Nether” runs through Sunday, April 17, performed by InterAct Theatre at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks Street (Hicks and Spruce Streets), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday.Tickets range from $38 to $34 and can be obtained by calling 215-568-8079 or by visiting Grade: A- Production, C- Play.


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