The Nether

unnamed

Robert Gerbode and Olivia Gillanders. Photo by Jana Marcus

By Philip Pearce

THE NETHER is the new name given to a futuristic, super-internet world at the heart of a prizewinning play with that title being given a challenging new production by Seetheatre in Santa Cruz.

A man named Sims, like a refugee from a Kafka nightmare, finds himself under ruthless interrogation by a determined female detective named Morris. For what? It’s not clear until, under pressure from Morris, Sims admits, “I’m sick.” Meaning he can’t resist sexually abusing children. But he insists he can and does cater harmlessly to his proclivity by logging in regularly to a Nether site he has created called The Hideaway. Here, in a sylvan, Victorian family setting, he and any other consenting adults who care to join him, can work their pedophiliac urges on a succession of appealing juvenile avatars. And, everything being virtual, they can do it fully “without outside consequences.”

Morris’ ethical struggles (how do you prosecute a virtual crime?) offer an intriguing new twist on a theatrical chestnut made popular by writers like Ibsen, Strindberg and Shaw in well-made problem plays of 19th and 20th centuries. Jennifer Haley’s sci-fi update raises some heavily relevant questions for a modern society already addicted to a smorgasbord of video games, and to virtual geography and on-line athletic contests.

The crimes and misdemeanors of The Nether, like events in a Greek tragedy, arise in the dialogue but are committed offstage. They happen only in the imaginations of us, the audience. But that’s what it’s really all about: our imaginations impose threats on us and our technologies compound and exploit those threats.

The script tells us a certain amount about the past lives of Sims and also of Doyle, another suspect with a related but different psychosis. But right from the start the focus is on here-and-now choices these damaged men make in response to Morris’s ruthless questioning, and the decisions they reach once they’ve logged in to The Nether. Nobody, not even the play’s lone avatar, escapes unscathed. The back and forth action between the drab black and white interrogation office and the Hideaway’s Technicolor dream world ends in a bizarre and terrifying climax.

Exciting stuff and director/designer Brian Spencer’s dedicated cast offer competent, committed performances. The problem for me was that author Haley cares more about these five people as illustrations of a social problem than as complex or believable human beings. The result is a tough assignment for any acting company.

Scenes in Morris’s office come off better dramatically than those in the alluring Netherworld. April Bennett offers the evening’s most consistently convincing performance as the harsh and unyielding detective. But that‘s probably because Morris never ventures into the more challenging arena of The Hideaway.

As the flawed but self-assured Sims, Andrew Davids is effective in the interrogation scenes, but a lot less successful when he has turned himself into a deceptively benign virtual character known as Papa. Papa spends his time online playing subtle seduction games with an avatar called Iris played by ten-year-old Olivia Gillanders. Here the actor must project the loving parental exterior he has created in his own imagination but at the same time signal to the audience that the nice father-daughter interplay is sugar-coating for some nasty and perverse shenanigans. Davids gets the loving parent right but he’s innately such a solid looking, rational, feet-on-the-ground kind of guy that the underlying hint of nastiness is missing. But it’s an acting assignment that would probably challenge a Johnny Depp or a Jude Law, so here’s to Davids for a commendable effort.

Surprisingly, it is the production’s least experienced performer, young Olivia Gillanders as the hapless Iris, who comes off best in the Nether scenes. Her clear and uncomplicated innocence gives these moments, if only by their implied irony, some necessary creepiness. This is just as true of her scenes with Robert Gerbode (see photo above), brightly hopeful but ultimately doomed in the role of Woodnut, an agent sent to spy on The Hideaway and report back to Morris.

Nick Bilardello is appropriately tormented as Morris’s other target Doyle, who has an even thornier psychological problem than Sims does. He’s so fed up with life in the real world that he wants to become a full-time inhabitant of The Nether. How that turns out is worth waiting for in a performance that clocks neatly in at 90 minutes.

The Nether continues at Center Stage, Santa Cruz, through April 29th.