Theater review: ‘The Nether’ raises uncomfortable questions about online activity

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Produced by: SEETheatre

When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 3 p.m. through April 29

Where: Center Stage Theater, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz

Tickets: $22 general; $20 senior/student

Details: www.spencerentertainment.brownpapertickets.com

It’s difficult to figure out who the audience is for a play like “The Nether.” Because of its obvious connection to the digital world, millennials and younger theatergoers may better relate to it than older generations.

But because of the nefarious nature of what goes on in the virtual reality world of this particular Nether, it’s likely no one will leave the theater after the 90-minute play without feeling a little bit unclean.

SEETheatre producer/director Brian Spencer’s mantra for his theater company is to “provoke thought as well as entertain.” This particular production seems to tilt heavily toward the provoking thought half of that credo.

That’s because Jennifer Haley’s 2013 drama touches on the seldom-discussed topic of adults who desire children and abuse them. But because this happens in a virtual realm, the play begs the question: Is it a crime?

As “The Nether” opens, detective Morris (a rather stilted April Bennett) is questioning Sims (a serious, thoughtful Andrew Davids), who owns the Hideaway, the virtual reality realm Morris is investigating. Sims, called Papa whenever he is in the Nether, admits that he is “sick” (in the sense of being sexually deviant), but points out that he only gives in to his unnatural desires in the virtual world.

He justifies his behavior by telling Morris that virtual reality gives him the opportunity to have “a life outside of consequences.” But does it?

That’s the moral focus of “The Nether,” but the real heart of the play comes whenever the action shifts to the larger portion of the stage which is that virtual place, the Hideaway. Here are many graceful poplar trees, a genteel Gothic home (represented here by a doll’s house version), a richly upholstered chair and an old-fashioned gramophone (phonograph).

It’s in this atmosphere that Papa is in control. He enters wearing a long black coat and summons Iris, an innocent-looking young girl of 9 or 10 with long, straw-colored hair. Iris is wise beyond her years and willingly submits to whatever the men who visit the Hideaway want her to do. This is where the play becomes difficult to watch without fidgeting in your seat.

As the knowing Iris, Olivia Gillanders, making her professional acting debut, is a revelation. She acts, in fact, exactly as an avatar would: Non-emotional, matter-of-fact and with a judicious, almost sad, compliance.

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There are two other supporting characters in the play, Mr. Doyle, an elderly gentleman who enjoys going to the Hideaway so much he wants to live there forever. As Doyle, Nick Bilardello is a bit of a mystery. He never deeply develops his desire to disappear into the Nether, nor does he make the audience care that much about him.

As Woodnut, another Hideaway customer, Robert Gerbode walks, talks and preens but is pretty unconvincing until his final scene with Iris.

This is obviously a tense, somewhat unpleasant play that is not for anyone other than adults. Even little Gillanders seems out of place in this atmosphere because society tries to shelter children from such ugliness.

So does it have any redeeming value other than voyeurism? Certainly it’s not great theater – more like an episode or two of some strange sci-fi television drama.

But it does open up an opportunity to think about where everyone today is headed in the seemingly limitless highway of the digital age. It’s likely most in the audience have never given any thought to the sometimes difficult-to-maneuver life between the real and the virtual world. More importantly: What should be considered a crime in this “nether” world of relative realities?

It’s something to ponder, but not for too long.

A dedicated crew of long-time theater people worked with Spencer on this production. Bonnie Ronzio is both stage manager and light-board operator; Rick Botelho came up with a creative way of having both the detective’s office and the Hideaway on stage at the same time, Davis Banta provided strong sound design, Max Bennett-Parker composed some original music for “The Nether,” and Carina Swanberg produced skilled lighting design.

Nevertheless, theatergoers should be well aware of the tangled web of digital wires they’ll encounter in this play. It may, as Spencer and the playwright hope, open up your mind to a heretofore foreign area of thought. Or it may just make you feel uncomfortable. Either way is suitable.