"The Nether" at Theatre Emory, November 1-17, 2019
Ibi Owolabi is getting a name as one of Atlanta’s finest new directors. She bolsters that reputation with a stunning production of Jennifer Haley’s "The Nether" at Theatre Emory. The script and the production values create a phantasmagoria of a future world in which nature is only for the truly privileged and internet realms provide virtual environments catering to every taste.
The Hideaway is a realm run by a Mr. Sims (Thomas Ward), who acts as "Papa" in the realm, in which adults are invited to come in and interact with virtual children in any way their proclivities lead them. In the Hideaway, which has a Victorian theme, we see child Iris (Devon Hales), Papa, and an adult male guest, Woodnut (Tsiambwom M. Akuchu). In the real world, we see Detective Morris (Stephanie Escorza) interviewing a denizen of the Hideaway, Mr. Doyle (Marcus Durham), in an attempt to connect Mr. Sims to the realm and to shut the Hideaway down. The connections between the real world and the virtual world come together in sometimes surprising ways.
Ryan Bradburn’s set design makes use of sliding panels and a rotating small platform to suggest the real and virtual worlds. On the "real" side of the rotating section, we see the bars and grimy wall of an interrogation chamber (featuring the work of scenic artist Sara Culpepper), in which sit a small table and two chairs. On the "virtual" side, the rotating section blends in with the panels as projections by Milton Cordero fill the walls. Projections are the central design feature of the production (although Ryan Bradburn’s light-filled props are pretty stunning too). Scene transitions featuring moving projections and sound designer Kendall Simpson’s music keep the show flowing smoothly and fascinatingly. Brent Glenn’s lighting design nicely suggests the dark mood of the real-life scenes and the sunny artificiality of the virtual realm.
Alan Yeong’s costumes similarly do a wonderful job of suggesting the two worlds. Mr. Ward wears a futuristic jacket as Mr. Sims, changing into Victorian garb as Papa. Ms. Escorza and Mr. Durham wear drably modern clothes, while Mr. Akuchu sports a dapper three-piece suit and Ms. Hales wears an impossibly frilly Victorian dress for scenes in the virtual world. The visual aspects of the show are stunning.
The casting suggests a sort of utopia in which gender and race are malleable between the real and virtual worlds. This contrasts with the dystopia of a planet with a ruined natural environment and an incipient totalitarian government. The whole thing is quite thought-provoking.
The prurient aspect of pederasty is combined with child murder in the virtual world of the Hideaway, which seems a little odd. Loving children and killing them would seem to be two extremes of behavior that aren’t necessarily linked in a single psyche. But the child pornography aspect of the show isn’t the focus; it’s just a leaping-off point for an examination of psychological and interpersonal behaviors.
Acting is fine across the board, with Ms. Owolabi’s sure directorial hand keeping the action and performances coherent and engrossing throughout. "The Nether" raises questions about the future and about how aberrant behavior might affect and be affected by virtual reality. That’s intriguing enough on its own. But when the visual aspects of the production are so outstanding, they elevate the show to be one of the best of the season.