“The dream police, they live inside of my head
The dream police, they come to me in my bed
The dream police, they're coming to arrest me, oh no”
It was 1979 when Cheap Trick ear-wormed radio listeners with its ditty about the policing of private thought, long before Jennifer Haley had even started thinking about writing her 2013 award-wining play The Nether. But still, one couldn’t be blamed for humming a few bars of Dream Police on the ride home from Haley’s play. That is, no doubt, after recovering from being totally creeped out and finishing a robust discussion about pedophilia, virtual reality and the ethics of imagination. You see, in The Nether, the police are most definitely watching our private thoughts, but in Haley’s version it’s not our dreams that are in question, but rather what we are doing online and to whom.
The intensely provocative play (directed with hit-and-miss tension by Gregory Boyd and James Black) is both a sci-fi thriller and a police drama set at some point in the future. The Internet, now called The Nether, has become an all-encompassing entity in which we live and act out our lives in virtual realms. We go to work in virtual offices, attend school in virtual classrooms and act out our sexual fantasies in realms catering to all manner of proclivities. It’s this latter realm and its implications that Haley is interested in.
As the play opens, we’re dropped into a familiar setting, a police interrogation, about a potential crime that is anything but commonplace. Alone in a modernly sparse black-hued room, Detective Morris (a perplexingly un-authoritative Josie de Guzman) questions a middle-aged, respectably dressed Mr. Sims, a.k.a. Papa (a superlative John Feltch) about the realm he built and runs, called The Hideaway. A realm where men act out their pedophilic fantasies in astonishingly lifelike fashion.
It doesn’t take long for us to learn that not only is Mr. Sims the owner of The Hideaway, he’s also a client. Sure, he makes a pretty penny off the concept, charging his users for access, but at the heart of The Hideaway is Mr. Sims’s own sexual deviance. He built the site, he says, to satisfy what he knows are his aberrant libidinous needs. By exercising these desires virtually, Sims haughtily maintains, he is actually stopping himself and men like him from acting on these impulses in the real world. Besides, he counters with privileged disdain, what right do the police have to be censorious in matters of personal imagination?
Every right, counters Detective Morris. “The Nether is home to many businesses, with an obligation to protect the needs of our community. And our community has decided that realms such as yours are impermissible.” What is virtual one minute can become real the next, posits Morris. So begins a heated showdown between the two, each unwilling to give up his stand and, in Sim’s case, the location of his all-important servers. Or the standoff would be heated if de Guzman could muster the calculated coolness and smarts that an investigating officer would possess. Instead, Boyd and Black seem content to have her play the role with slippery emotion and little command, unfortunately sucking much of the tension out of these scenes despite Feltch’s outstanding performance.
Still, Morris may have the upper hand; she brings another Hideaway player in for questioning, one who may prove more breakable than the aggressively self-possessed Mr. Sims. Doyle (a solid Philip Lehl), a former science teacher turned Hideaway regular, is considered a shade, someone who spends most of his waking hours in virtual spaces online. Doyle is a broken man, unhappy in life and desirous of crossing over permanently into The Hideaway, where, he claims, he finds nothing but joy. However, it doesn’t take long for Morris (with the aid of some nifty Mission Impossible-like tabletop-led technology) to show him that true and virtual happiness are not built on the same truths. But in true Haley fashion, it’s a revelation that comes with ethical complications and morally questionable results.
As if the interrogation-room subject matter isn’t uncomfortable enough, Haley’s plot moves us to further vexation by swinging back and forth between the questioning and The Hideaway itself, allowing us to see some of what transpires in the realm. To visually accomplish this, scenic designer Kevin Rigdon has created an elevator effect on set, dropping down a whole new stage from the rafters whenever the action takes place in the Hideaway. It’s a terrifically eerie ta-da moment each time it happens in spite of the feeling of sameness about the two sets. The Hideaway is described in the play as an elegant and intricately wrought Victorian home replete with trees and gardens and picture windows. It's a totally retro throwback to a time when technology wasn’t even a glimmer in the eye. Instead, Rigdon gives us a Hideaway that feels as sparsely modern as the interrogation room, save for a Lucite gramophone and a few ghost chairs. Thankfully, Haley’s ideas and words are powerful enough to light our imaginations even as we wish for more of a dichotomy in the two settings.
In these unnerving Hideaway scenes, we witness Sims as Papa doting on one of his favorite girls, the sweetly cheery and always accommodating nine-year-old Iris (played with remarkable poise and insight by the young actress Jemma Kosanke). His playfulness with her may seem avuncular, but Haley has made sure we know better, even if Boyd and Black shy away from pushing the contact envelope in their staging.
We also meet Woodnut, the undercover officer sent into the realm to gather information for Morris’s investigation. And it’s here that the thriller part of Haley’s plot becomes the most acute. Woodnut has chosen Iris as his “companion,” and we watch with fascination and horror, wondering how much of the virtual roleplay Woodnut is willing to undertake. Will his interactions with the perfect child go beyond simply talking and dancing? Will Woodnut adhere to Papa’s "don’t get too close" rules, which dictate that each visitor must brutally murder his child with an ax once they have consummated? Will Woodnut be seduced into this world without consequences? And if there are no consequences, does anything he does really matter? And what of Doyle, the Hideaway regular also being questioned by Morris. How does he fit into this increasingly upsetting but intellectually challenging story?
To say anything more at this point would only spoil the truly shocking thriller part of the play, so best to end the discussion of plot and ethical conundrums here. But that just leaves us more room to discuss the ethics of staging this difficult show, specifically, how to handle sexual situations involving a minor on stage.
Full disclosure: I’d seen this play prior to its staging in Houston and these delicate questions were as much on my mind then as they were in this production. My feeling, as it is again here, was that in the absence of any directorial notes from the playwright on how to depict the relationship between Iris and Papa/Woodnut, the directors chose to hedge. Boyd and Black have Simms behaving playfully with Iris, but nothing more. With Woodnut, Iris does take off her dress, revealing herself fully clad in bloomers, but at no point are any flirty or suggestive touches exchanged.
Before everyone begins to pearl-clutch in an uproar, no one is suggesting that a young actress should be compromised onstage. And goodness knows that Kosanke punched far beyond her weight class in taking on this young but disturbingly mature role as it is. My quibble, however, is this: Haley has given us a squirm-inducing play meant to make us question the right-and-wrong divide in matters virtual and deviant. So then why pull back in such puritanical sensibility when all that was needed was one seductive touch to make the point? A touch, I might add, that could have come from Iris to Woodnut, thereby allowing the actress some power/control in the situation onstage.
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There. Point registered. Now back to the play/production itself.
No question this isn’t a show for everyone. Certainly not for the audience that simply wants to chill out with some light entertainment to help float away its everyday stresses. But even this crowd would have to agree that The Nether is the kind of show that very successfully pushes the conversation, forcing us to question where our moral compass is and where it might end up as technology further insinuates itself into our lives.
The first thing my seat mate said upon leaving the show was, “I feel like I need a shower.” It took him a couple of minutes to shake the feeling off, but once he did, it was nothing but debate the entire way home. For me, this urge to discuss is the mark of a brilliant night in the theater. The Nether, despite some weak moments in this production, still packs the kind of wallop that makes it a must-see for all those who want difficult ideas addressed in their theater. Just be sure to pack some metaphoric towelettes to help wipe the ick off on your way out.
The Nether run through May 29 at The Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For tickets visit alleytheatre.org or call 713-220-5700. $26-$75.