The year is 2025 (gosh, that's soon!) and apparently environmental conditions on Earth are rapidly deteriorating. Trees have mostly vanished and other plants don't seem to be doing too well either, with cotton clothing and wine "made from grapes" accessible only to the rich. Meanwhile, advances in "The Nether," as the internet has become known, have developed rapidly as well, with simulated worlds growing ever more realistic and people able to "cross over" into living online full time, their physical bodies merely "shades" on life support. And in one virtual enclave, known as "the Hideaway," visitors are guaranteed the privacy and freedom to act out some very dark impulses indeed. This is the disturbing world of Jennifer Haley's "The Nether," the latest brainy drama from Dragon Productions Theatre Company.
Director Jenny Hollingworth leads a capable cast through this very entertaining sci-fi/crime procedural/ethics puzzle of a play, which could easily translate to an episode of television's "Black Mirror."
Maria Marquis, whose performances always simmer with sharp intelligence, plays Morris, a detective engaged in a sting operation of sorts against Simms (Paul Stout), the architect and CEO of the Hideaway and a major player there. He's designed the Hideaway to resemble a Victorian-era land of innocence, complete with tranquil gardens, a lovely house and a coterie of adorable children, including winsome 9-year-old Iris (Ellie Schwartz). Rounding out the cast are Drew Jones and Kevin Copps, whose roles audiences discover gradually and about whom I'll refrain from saying much (it is a detective story, after all!).
In the Hideaway, old-fashioned gentility and manners are the rule, harkening back to pleasures no longer available in the "real world." It's also a place where pedophilia is tolerated — nay, encouraged — as is child abuse and even murder. Simms, or "Papa," as his Hideaway alter-ego is known, built this online lair to be free of moral consequence, where people can be their "real" selves without facing judgement in the outer world. The Victorian era is a perfect setting, offering, as it does, echoes of Lewis Carroll's (as far we know, innocent) infatuation with children and a touch of Wonderland madness. So skillful is Simms at coding and other tech operations that the Hideaway offers remarkably lifelike sensations as well as guaranteed anonymity.
Morris is disgusted by these virtual goings on and aiming to shut the Hideaway down. Simms argues that such prosecution is on par with Orwellian thought police, that all must be free to use their imaginations as they wish, and that by allowing pedophiliac and violent tendencies to play out in the Nether, the physical world is actually made safer, by giving would-be deviants, himself included, an outlet. Of course, the reality is much less simple, as actions taken online turn out to have consequences beyond the Hideaway, sometimes in surprising ways.
Hollingworth and crew cleverly divide, decorate and light the stage so that it's easy to distinguish which scenes are taking place in the Hideaway (all aglow in soft lighting, pastoral sound effects, lovely, colorful costumes and "Waltz of the Flowers" phonograph records) and which take place in the harsh, drab, dark and dirty real world. Poplar trees much admired in the Nether turn into sinister, glowing columns of tech effectively, thanks to Nathanael Card's scenic design. One slight misstep is the large screen used during Morris' interrogations, which seems to exist only to display floating text, screen-saver style, from time to time. It's a bit distracting and the show could easily do without — or more with — the device.
Though Haley's work is fiction and takes place slightly in the future, the issues contemplated are very real, and very compelling despite (or perhaps because of) their ick factor. In "The Nether," the avatars portraying Iris and the other children are controlled, behind the scenes, by real-life adults, but I wonder if the ethics would be different, and in what ways, if they were completely AI?
At the heart of it, "The Nether" is less about shocking compulsions than about the desperate need humans have for making connections, as well as the struggle to understand and reckon with what makes a "real" self. And it can be considered as much a critique of capitalism (it's all business, Simms argues) as of its other, more taboo themes.
The short-but-powerful show raises more uncomfortable questions than it answers and will likely keep audiences thinking well after the curtain call. Thinking, and hoping that the world of "The Nether" does not come to pass. As a tense and creepy bit of drama, the production is a memorable trip to the dark side of the web.
What: "The Nether."
Where: Dragon Theatre, 2120 Broadway St., Redwood City.
When: Through Feb. 9. Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m.
Info: Dragon Theatre.