Live theater has rarely dealt with digital worlds or cyber crime – the stage can’t activate the CGI effects that sci-fi films can. But this weekend, Stage West presents the regional premiere of ‘The Nether’ by Texas-born playwright Jennifer Haley. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports it’s a creepy thriller about virtual reality – and some of our worst impulses.
It’s the near-future, and people can spend large chunks of their life in online worlds. A person can even ‘cross-over’ — become nothing but a life-supported husk while their mind travels into virtual realms where they can still feel any sensation, satisfy any desire.
The play, ‘The Nether’ opens like a hard-edged, TV cop show: ‘Law & Order / MAC OS.’ A female detective named Morris (Alison Pistorius) interrogates Mr. Sims (Aaron Roberts). Sims created one of these secretive, cyberspace netherworlds, an encrypted one called The Hideaway that admits only a tiny number of anonymous visitors.
“But really, Mr. Sims, an average of 14 hours a day in the Nether?” Detective Morris demands. “What can be gained from spending so much time in something that isn’t real?”
“Just because it’s virtual doesn’t mean it isn’t real,” the businessman responds. “There’s a realm for anything you want to know or do or think you want to try — don’t you think it’s a bit out of date to say it isn’t real?”
OK, so the initial exposition’s a little clunky, but what quickly becomes clear is that the detective already knows what’s going on in The Hideaway. She investigates sex crimes, and Mr. Sims is a pedophile. In the play, nothing sexually explicit happens. But playwright Jennifer Haley’s drama has gotten a lot of stage awards and attention — partly because it’s a cyber noir, a form of thriller seemingly ideal for the world-spinning, special EFX of films and not the word-heavy tread of theater.
But media attention has also come because the play raises issues of freedom, imagination, sexual depravity and the web. ‘The Nether’ is not just a thriller; it’s a drama of ideas. Cringe-inducing ideas. Snuff films, role-playing games, kiddie porn — and your very own log-in.
“I knew I wanted to confront the ethical question of what we could be allowed to do in virtual reality,” explains playwright Haley. “And I figured that it had to be an extreme ethical situation. So I thought it could be pedophilia or people playing genocide. And pedophilia was the easier one to deal with onstage — although when I realized that, I was like, do you — oh my God — do you really want to talk about pedophilia?”
Pedophilia presents perhaps the most horrific argument for online freedom of expression. It’s true that no one in The Hideaway is physically hurt. They’re all virtual-reality avatars — meaning they’re essentially digital-mental shells for the human puppet-masters who are all safely elsewhere. The avatars are upgraded versions of the characters we already play in games like Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed.
But as the mysterious Mr. Sims argues – note his name, an inside-joke reference to the ‘life simulation video game,’ The Sims — just because they’re virtual doesn’t mean they’re not real. They still express some very real desires.
Playwright Haley has been intrigued by such issues of cyber ethics ever since her tech-oriented day job crept into her night-time writing. The 45-year-old was born and raised in Houston and San Antonio. She got a double degree in liberal arts and theater from UT-Austin, and eventually joined an inventive commedia outfit, Troupe Texas. But while temping in offices in Austin and later Seattle, Haley more or less taught herself web design.
And even as she was learning it, Haley says, “I was thinking this would be a great way for me to make money as a writer because I could already see the flexibility it gave me.”
Ultimately, Haley was even able to ditch her freelance web work to get back into theater. In 2003, she was admitted to Brown University’s graduate playwriting program. In 2005, she started work on her horror play, ‘Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom.’ In it, teenagers are addicted to a zombie-killing computer game — so addicted, they eventually enter it.
People stepping through the looking glass into imagined, web-like worlds like this often happens in cyber-noir films such as ‘The Matrix’ and ‘Tron’ — it’s been Haley’s achievement to turn this around, to bring the web onstage. In ‘The Nether,’ we enter The Hideaway – because an undercover cop has managed to sneak inside to track what Sims is up to. Which is why Sims quizzes a favorite young girl (Jad Saxton) about this curious new visitor.
“You mean Mr. Woodnut?”
“You’ve been spending quite a bit of time with him.”
“He’s fascinated by what you’ve done here. He asks all kinds of questions.”
One of the stylish little surprises in ‘The Nether’ is that when we get to the Hideaway, it’s not a high-tech temple. Nor is it some fashionably squalid dystopia. It’s an English country manor, and Mr. Sims is tricked out like a proper gent. Iris is all dolled up in pinafore and white lace. The entire atmosphere evokes Victorian-Edwardian fictions such as ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘The Secret Garden.’ Instead of jumping into the future, we’ve headed back in time to Downton Abbey. Which, of course, had its own share of hideaways.
“I didn’t want the audience to feel they had to figure out this world,” explains Haley. “I wanted them to come into a world they felt like they knew. So definitely, Lewis Carroll, little girls and childhood innocence and sexuality, yes, all of that. It was ready as a kind of shorthand.”
Garret Storms, who’s directing ‘The Nether’ at Stage West, picked up on this aspect of the play. Reading about ‘The Nether,’ he says, he was intrigued by its provocative nature. But it wasn’t until he read the script that he realized, “It’s like a very haunting fairy tale.” A bedtime story about laptops and pedophiles.
These days, Haley makes her living in LA writing scripts for haunting shows like the Netflix horror series, ‘Hemlock Grove’ — meanwhile, ‘The Nether’ has launched her internationally as a playwright. It won the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (for best play written by a woman) and premiered in 2013 in LA at the Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre. Soon after, it was staged off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel — as well as in Madrid, Munich and San Francisco.
But it was the London show that really switched on the website chatter and acclaim. The original Royal Court Theatre production was so successful, it moved to the West End and garnered multiple Olivier nominations (the British equivalent of the Tony), including ones for best play, best actor and best supporting actress. Innovative designer Es Devlin created the closing ceremony for the London Olympics, but her digital scenery projections for ‘The Nether’ were jaw-dropping and groundbreaking on their own: They were like watching ‘Ghost in the Shell’ live, onstage. And the digital projections didn’t even include Devlin’s dazzling Victorian house of mirrors and gardens. It was no surprise when she won the Olivier for best set design.
Yet Haley argues that all of this focus on technology — in her own background, in her plays and their production designs — has been misleading. In fact, she says she’s looking forward to the first truly bare-bones staging of ‘The Nether.’ That’s because “I think technology is a medium, but the plays are about psychology and identity and our relationships to each other.”
Indeed. When we create virtual realms we’re just upgrading old fantasies, tricking out comic books, pulp novels and TV shows with new media. All that’s truly inventive about these 3D fantasies is that we can fool our minds into taking a walk around inside them, to live inside them. For many of us, that’s everything. That’s the escape, the indulgence we long for, to leave our pathetic, dowdy, daily lives. But these dream realms — transforming us with their gizmos and garments, their sex and superpowers — they unwittingly reveal something tragic and rooted about us.
Just how much human contact we lack – in this reality.