Presented by Flat Earth Theatre
By Jennifer Haley
Directed by Sarah Gazdowicz
Review by Kitty Drexel
Trigger warnings: pedophilia, sexual abuse, implied physical violence, predatory grooming
(Watertown, MA) Flat Earth’s production is expectedly excellent but it isn’t enjoyable. Well actually, The Nether is about ethics in gaming journalism. It’s a political metaphor for gamer identity protection. Just kidding: It’s about abusive communities on the internet and the people who dwell in them. Identity protection and “ethics” are smoke screens for heinous behavior in the name of free speech and implausible deniability. #yesallwomen
The future of the internet is complete sensory dominance. Mr. Sims (Bob Mussett in a role that that provokes shock and awe) has created the Hideaway, a virtual reality that is so real that its “unique” visitors never want to leave. It exists on the Nether, a virtual reality in which humans live more fully than actual reality. Like World of Warcraft, adults adopt avatars to roleplay their fantasies. Sims is known in the Nether as “Papa,” a business owner running a Chekhovian community for adults with sexual appetites only youth can satisfy. He is under investigation for acts of indecency by Morris (Regine Vital), an agent of the Nether. Papa claims that horrendous actions committed in the Nether have no consequence because all kinder-cosplayers are 18+ offline. The Nether examines whether or not fantasy holds as much sway virtually as it does actually. Julia Talbot, Jeff Gill and Arthur Gomez complete the cast.
Flat Earth’s The Nether goes out of its way to deceive you. Not only because Mussett plays the nice uncle with a kind smile and a gentle manner suspiciously well, but also because society teaches us that adults can’t be groomed. Learn from the crimes of unfunny, hip hop punchline R. Kelly; predatory grooming can happen at any age and anywhere. It can look like free will, but it is insidious coercion. Playwright Haley delivers to us conscientious adult characters is whose autonomy we trust because they have such strong convictions. It is an untrustworthy narrative. Haley plays directly into our moral judgement of moral stereotypes and reveals to us our own hypocrisies. The Nether is psychological horror.
Gazdowicz’s approach is sly. The cast in 100% sincere in their portrayals. Because this is true, we the audience get sucked into what we see and forget what we are told to be true. Talbot as Iris is as creepy as she is forthright. We forget that her childlike character is not what she seems. Vital and Gomez are the closest The Nether has to protagonists but even they aren’t blameless. We believe in their virtue until it is nearly impossible to continue to do so. Jeff Gill’s frank approach to Doyle is heartbreaking. His character runs the gamut of betrayals and the audience is dragged with him. I truly wanted things to work out for him.
The design on this project was simple but effective. All of the designers from costumes to set should be proud of their work. Small details such as the buttons on the back of Iris’s dress to the hanging lights and ax lent believability to the production.
The lengths the mind will go to to convince its human of righteousness are terrifying. For example, The Nether’s audience will reject the sexualization of children but will consume media that objectifies young women, and girls (and to some extent, boys). The Nether differs from Lolita in few enough ways to be deeply disturbing, and Lolita is considered a classic. If you enjoyed Lolita, don’t go see The Nether. See a therapist (from a jail cell) instead.
The human mind cannot differentiate between what happens on the internet and what happens in real life. Its response to emotional stimulus is the same. People fall in love, work, and play on the internet. We can pretend that what we do on the internet doesn’t have meaning, but we’d be lying. Even if our internet behavior doesn’t directly affect us, it affects someone. No crimes, no matter how small or innocuous, are victimless.