“The Nether” asks uncomfortable, disturbing, relevant questions

Actors' Theater opens season with "The Nether"

Honestly, there was a point during the play “The Nether” on opening night Thursday evening where my guest wanted to walk out of the auditorium. Quite frankly, that’s something I was happy to hear, as I don’t think I want to know any person sitting in that audience that didn’t feel disturbed to their core of the virtual reality world brought to life on the stage.

He ultimately didn’t leave his seat, but I understand why he had to consciously keep reminding himself that this was a play and it was meant to push boundaries to get to the hard questions about humanity. I felt the same way, and maybe that was the Brechtian alienation effect this material needed to truly provoke that social-critical audience response about where technology is taking us.

Even though you know the play is exploring virtual reality, there’s something about using living, breathing beings—in particular, children—to illustrate the point. I still have lingering questions about the questions the play asks about virtual reality, and is a stage performance not a form of virtual reality to some degree as well, and where does the line get drawn? Oh, I think Bertolt Brecht would be seriously pleased with my turmoil.

“The Nether,” written by Jennifer Haley, is the 2017-18 season opener for Actors’ Theatre, an organization dedicated to being, as the president of their board states “the antithesis of uniformity and status quo…giving you content that makes you leave with something to say.”

Deftly directed by Randy Wyatt, a local playwright who in his own work shows a fearlessness to exploring around the edges, this production works through a non-linear, multi-temporal and spatial storyline to help both blur and clarify the lines between worlds. Can a “life without consequences” and a meaningful life coexist? How does our own foray into social media facades, role-playing games, and unprecedented interconnectedness online alter our ideas about reality?

The set design, created by Robert Broadfood, together with sound and lighting design (Kyle Los and Catherine Marlett Dreher, respectively) works well to create a stark contrast between realm of the past and vision of the future. It provides room to move between the two as easily as it takes for you to log on to the internet. A few technical problems with the set during the opening night performance will no doubt be fixed for the remainder of the run. Costume design (William Dunckel) unobtrusively supports the transition between worlds as well.

Russell Roozeboom (Sims/Papa), Melissa Fortino (Morris), Mike Smolinski (Doyle), Voca Ford (Iris), and Jake Mate (Woodnut) are a versatile cast, able to navigate cleanly through time, place, and character that this play demands. A Brechtian feel infuses the acting style as well, straightforward, sometimes monotone in delivery as it forces attention to the impact of the words and deeds over sympathy with the players.

The powerhouse performance in this play, though, clearly centers around veteran actor Smolinski, whose character slowly and intensely implodes the worlds together until they reveal a painful, difficult, singular space of existence with which we all need to come to terms.

“The Nether” runs through Oct. 14 at Spectrum Theatre. Visit Actors’ Theater for tickets.

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