THEATER REVIEW: “The Nether” @ Dobama Theatre by Roy Berko


Through Sun 3/31

In this era, confusion and uncertainty are the present trend in many cutting-edge plays by a new breed of playwrights that Dobama is using as its writing stable.

Following this trend, the theater’s play selections have landed on the side of intellectual, thought-provoking scripts that often leave the audience confounded and with few answers to the many questions asked by the playwrights. The Nether is another one of those scripts.

The audience is confronted with a sci-fi “crime” drama written by American playwright Jennifer Haley. Haley is noted for delving into the ethics of virtual reality and the impact of technology on our human relationships and identity.

The time is “soon” and the setting jumps from an interrogation room to the “Hideaway.” “The internet has evolved into the Nether, a vast network of virtual-reality realms. Users may log in, choose an identity and indulge any desire. When Detective Morris investigates a realm called the Hideaway, where pedophiles may live out their fantasies involving children, she brings its creator in for interrogation. They discover they have made emotional attachments in his realm that blind them to the greater questions of ethical behavior, both in the imagination and the outside world.”

Recent psychological studies have raised the question of whether being able to “act out” needs and fantasies through role-playing and simulations relieves a person from performing deeds and actions in reality. Is the need to act sexually through rape and sexual imposition reduced by having vicariously watched pornography reduce the need for actual sex and control?

Does having killed and maimed via the play of X-box games taken away the desire to actually pick up a gun and shoot a real person? Or, as proposed in The Nether, does the ability to role-play pedophilia suppress the desire to really perform the act?

Or as Dobama artistic director Nathan Motta asks in his program notes, “What happens when we are able to completely immerse ourselves in a world without consequences? Is it accurate to say that there are no consequences in a virtual world?”

As can be expected, the directing, technical aspects and acting are top-notch. Shannon Sindelar’s direction of The Nether is flawless, as is the performance of Matthew Wright as Sims/Papa, the facilitator into the pedophilia world of the Nether. Wright creates a clear character, who justifies his not acting on his child-centered desires by being above the philosophical fray by participating in a make-believe world. His is both an illuminating and psychologically chilling character portrayal.

Young Calista Zajac as Iris, a child avatar, whose purpose is to welcome and satisfy the “guests” in Papa’s Nether Hideway, proves herself to be one of the few child actresses in the area capable of being an equal of the professionals with whom she is surrounded. Hers is an amazing performance.

Equally excellent are the character developments of Sarah Durn as the investigator who is trying to ascertain the value or harm of the Hideway, and Joe Pine and David Peacock as participants in the online experience.

Paul Lowry’s projections, displayed within Patrick Rizzotti’s set design, add to the smooth transition from scene to scene.

Side comment: It is interesting to note that following the staging I saw, a number of audience members, knowing I was a reviewer, asked, “What is all this about?” That can be a positive evaluation of the play as it shows that it inspired the viewers to think, or it can be perplexing in that the intent and purpose of the author wasn’t clear. Hmm.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: The Nether is a thought-provoking, disturbing script which gets a fine production. It is not for those who go to the theater to escape from the real world, but for those who wish to probe into ideas and are willing to look for the consequences of the decisions we make, whether they be in real life or a fantasy world.

 The Nether runs through Sun 3/31.  Call 216-932-3396 or for tickets.

[Written by Roy Berko, member: Cleveland Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, International Association of Theatre Critics]

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