Sunday, January 24, 2016

"The Nether"

The Nether
Jennifer Haley

The Cast of "The Nether"
Already we live in a world where increasingly people are more apt to converse with a colleague in the next-door cube or the date across the dining table online versus in person.  Millions escape to imaginary lands to fight battles and kill invaders as well as to plant farms, sell goods, or solve world problems in games where co-participants are global and never met in person.  Soon, refrigerators will ascertain by our facial expression what we most want to eat; cars will whisk us where we want to go while we sleep or have a cocktail; and we will visit virtually and in real time any museum’s exhibit in the world.  How far out in the future is there a virtual world where anyone can create a personally constructed wonderland realm, invite others to enter, and live for some extended time away from a real world that for whatever reasons, is not the place one wants to be?  What rules will apply in that other world?  If we can already kill millions with imaginary guns today in the virtual gaming world, what are the limits what we can and cannot do tomorrow in the next generation Internet?  Who decides?  Who regulates?  Through presenting Jennifer Haley’s gripping, The Nether, San Francisco Playhouse invites us to ask these and many more intriguing and often troubling questions – questions that will continue to crop into our heads days, maybe weeks after exiting the excellent production.

Through the combined geniuses of Nina Ball (Set), Michael Oesch (Lighting), and Theodore J.H. Hulsker (Sound) and under the skillful eyes and direction of Bill English, four scenes magically swirl before us:  One in a real world where evidently no longer there are gardens, flowers, or trees and three in a beautiful, Victorian realm that exists in The Nether, the future generation of today’s Internet.  (Note, ‘nether’ literally means ‘situated or believed to below the earth’s summit.’)  All we see of the real world is a harshly lit, gray walled, claustrophobic room on stage’s edge where a metallic table and two chairs provide the setting for intense interrogations.  When we go into the Nether, we enter lavish rooms of yesteryear with flocked wallpaper, plush furniture, a Victrola playing beautiful music, and green trees galore in park-like environs.  To the latter add a little girl’s richly embroidered dress with layered, peeping-out petticoats or a man’s well-tailored vested suit clearly speaking of the late 19th Century; and in the stark, real world, imagine a fiercely intense questioner dressed all in black with leather jacket and tight pants and boots.  Brooke Jennings’s costumes round out this team’s talents in creating two contrasting worlds that change before us in a matter of a handful of blackened-out seconds.

To populate the above real and nether worlds and to tell a story that unfolds its mysteries in 80 or so sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat minutes is a cast that to a person is one of the best assembled in many a play at SF Playhouse.  Rubio Qian is the hard-faced, forever-pushing interrogator Morris, whose authority to seek information from the men who one-by-one sit nervously before her is never clear to us and whose main threat seems to be, “You can walk out of here; but if you do, we will rescind your password, and you’ll never login again.”  With eyes that pierce to the core, Ms. Qian is relentlessly persistent and terrifying in some strange, undefined way yet never physically threatens her targets as scenes of interrogation alternate with those of the more beautiful and seemingly enjoyable Victorian world of someone’s imagination, a place we learn is “The Hideaway.”

For reasons that we do not know immediately, Morris’s chief focus is on Mr. Sims, the tall, long-faced, balding Warren David Keith who has evidently been instrumental in creating a world where “we offer a life without consequence.”  Sims is the one character we see as himself in both real and virtual bodies.  In each, he is mostly soft-spoken but with intent of purpose.  In the Nether, he is known as “Papa;” and with that name comes a tenderness, a playfulness, and a way of just appearing from nowhere that is unsettling and more and more nerve-racking.

Louis Parnell & Rubio Qian
In any investigation, someone has to be pushed eventually to squeal.  A married-with-daughter, award-winning teacher of middle school (who also helps out in Sunday School), Mr. Doyle seems to be the one Morris is counting on to provide her the means to her unclear-to-us ends.  Frequent Bay Area and Playhouse favorite, Louis Parnell, may have secured the role of a lifetime as he embodies the gentle, nervous, so-sad Mr. Doyle.  From the first time we see him under Morris’ gaze, how can we not notice his shaking hands reaching to comfort his down-trodden face, his eyes blankly staring to the floor with shocked looks of a deer in headlights, or his voice that quivers on the verge of crying yet never quite going there?  Mr. Doyle holds clues we and Morris want to know more about; yet at the same time, Louis Parnell ensures Doyle has our sympathy and hope that he is actually innocent of any wrong-doing.

Into the pretty Nether world cautiously appears a young, handsome Mr. Woodnut in tweed coat and vest, trim beard, and looks to kill.  Josh Schell adds his own twists in the mounting mysteries that get more eerie and uncomfortable as the minutes tick by.  He befriends our final character, pre-teen Iris, who is more like a live doll that a real girl.  But in this virtual realm, all is concocted, including her draping curls, the perfectly falling folds of her blue dress, and a face that could melt any one’s heart.   

Carmen Steele
Twelve-year-old Carmen Steele brings a maturity of acting well beyond her years into a very difficult role that again and again pushes the story and us to an edge of an abyss we dare not enter but are forced to peer over.  She is masterful in her innocence and yet behind those full-moon eyes and red-lipped smile a half-mile wide, there are secrets too dark to ponder.  (Please note that the role of Iris alternates between Carmen Steele and Matilda Holtz.  Audiences are encouraged to see the play twice for two different interpretations.)

What is Morris trying to uncover and for whom?  Why is discovering the location of a server more important than nailing a perpetrator?  How far away is the world of tomorrow supposed to be: Later this century or later this year?  So many questions, intriguing and disturbing emerge in this nail-biter.  Once again we are reminded live theatre exists not just to entertain but to challenge, not just to leave us elated but to cause some unease.   San Francisco Playhouse rises to new heights of daring excellence in presenting The Nether, a play that will remain in each audience member’s psyche for a long, long time.

Rating: 5 E

The Nether continues through March 5, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at or by calling 415-677.9596.

Photo Credits:  Jessica Palopoli

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