Review: THE NETHER (revised)

by Lynn on October 13, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer


The Cast
Photo: Tim Leyes


At the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Ave., Toronto, Ont.

Written by Jennifer Haley

Directed by Peter Pasyk

Set and lights by Patrick Lavender

Costumes by Michelle Bohn

Sound and music by Richard Feren

Projections designed by Nick Bottomley

Cast: Katherine Cullen

Hannah Levinson

Mark McGrinder

Robert Persichini

David Storch

Provocative play with a huge squirm factor and a production that does the play justice.  

The Story. It’s certainly provocative.  It’s written by American playwright Jennifer Haley. She is exploring the ethics of the world of virtual reality if some of the activity in the Nether would be unacceptable in the real world.  The Nether is a more sophisticated and perhaps sinister world of the internet continued.

Mr. Sims is being investigated by Detective Morris, a young woman,  for his site called the Hideaway in the Nether in which people, manly men, can change their identity and have a relationship, in this case with a little Victorian era girl named Iris, about nine-years-old.

Take a breath. Exhale.

Sims says he has done nothing wrong—his company that offers these opportunities is squeaky clean. He has created s virtual reality world that allows a person to act without consequence. And many are willing to indulge in that world. The Nether follows the various people who inhabit that world. Mr. Doyle is a ‘guest’ in Mr. Sims’ site. Mr. Woodnut is as well and he has a secret about his identity. Iris is the young girl who spends time with Mr. Sims and the guests.

Detective Morris is forceful in her investigation to get Sims to confess to that odd world and why he created it. His reason is chilling and no I won’t tell you what it is. Suffice it to say his reason mixes a reality with the virtual reality that is stunning.

The Production.  How successful is the production in conjuring the eerie world of The Nether and then Sims’ Hideaway? Very successful.

Peter Pasyk has directed a very clear, compelling production, with stark florescent lighting in the scenes when Mr. Sims (David Storch)  is being interrogated. Designer Patrick Lavender has created shafts of florescent light that barely illuminate the interrogation giving it a spooky feel. These shafts are coupled with short, sharp sounds for effect. (Thank you Richard Feren, who designed the evocative sound and music).  It’s always startling.

Sims sits in a chair centre stage, dressed in a black robe of sorts that covers his whole body and drapes to the floor. He is bathed in soft white light but the background is black. It’s eerie looking. As Sims, David Storch projects a commanding arrogance with a touch of concern that he might be found out. Detective Morris, a forceful Katherine Cullen, stands over him, also illuminated in the soft white light. She has a position of power. She leans over him, honing in, crowding him. Sims holds his own. He is wily. He’s gotten out of tough scrapes before and no rookie cop is going to intimidate him.

Richard Feren’s resounding sound effects punctuate moments in the play for effect. Patrick Lavender has also created a lush, almost idyllic Victorian world in the scenes with Iris and her guests and Sims. It’s a world with serenity, beauty, patterns, light and lush vegetation and gardens.

When Detective Morris interviews Mr. Doyle (a sullen, nervous Robert Persichini), a celebrated high school science teacher, Detective Morris is as combative as Doyle is. Doyle seems on the verge of being beaten down, but he will not go down without a fight.

Characters when describing their desires try to keep them in check, but we do get the sense of the dark world they inhabit.

A guest is Mr. Woodnut with a secret more mysterious than the others. He is played with an aching reticence by Mark McGrinder. He is at once gentle but eager for more with his relationship with Iris. That scares him.

David Storch plays Sims as a serious man who defends his right to create this virtual world where no one is hurt and thus no consequences. It’s the moral implications that playwright Jennifer Haley is exploring and Detective Morris is investigating.

Hannah Levinson plays Iris, the nine-year-old girl. Hannah played Matilda in the musical of the same name and also young Allison in Fun Home.  She is dressed as a Victorian child—frilly dress, white socks and black Mary Jane shoes. She wears a big blue bow in the back of her hair. She is forthright, serious, accommodating and seems mature for her years. That’s because in the Nether world there is an adult ‘behind’ her who has taken the identity of a little girl. We never get the sense that that girl is in any danger of being overwhelmed by an adult because her intellect will defend her. Sure it sounds creepy, certainly when casting a young girl to play the part.

Comment. I love that Jennifer Haley doesn’t set her play in the future. The time is: “soon” which is a more compelling notation, something to be concerned about and wary of.

Haley has stated that a young girl must be cast in the part of Iris for full effect because if an adult was cast to play the kid, the same powerful punch would not be achieved.

What is clear here is that Hannah Levinson is a young girl, but her language and her composure in playing Iris suggests that while we think she’s a young girl, we can also be convinced she’s a figment of the virtual reality world.

I loved this play and production. Jennifer Haley has written a bracing play about the murky world of the internet now called The Nether and makes us question a world with no consequences, no matter how morally reprehensible, even if no one gets hurt. It’s beautifully directed, designed and acted by these gifted people. I love that it makes us feel uncomfortable for all the right reasons. And gives us lots to chew on.

Coal Mine Theatre and Studio 180 Theatre present:

Opened: Oct. 11, 2018.

Closes: Nov. 4, 2018.

Running Time: 80 minutes, approx.

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