Written by Jennifer Haley, The Nether is a dystopian play that tackles the ethics of virtual reality. First staged in LA in 2013, this latest production is the work of Coal Mine Theatre and Studio 180. Directed by Peter Pasyk, the best word to describe The Nether would be challenging. The Nether centres around a shady figure called Papa, a pedophile who remains celibate in his real life, but has created an underground online community where users can molest – and even murder – virtual children. As the play opens, Papa has been caught and is being interrogated by a young cop intent on shutting his online community down.
The script for The Nether uses interrogation scenes to anchor its tight (but disturbing) plot. These scenes are tense, and sometimes feel more like debates between Papa and the young detective who’s meant to be questioning him. For his part, Papa believes he’s done nothing wrong, that he has merely given people who don’t have a place in the real world a place to be themselves in virtual reality. Papa is an inventor, but also the protector of the Steampunk-esque pedophile community he designed. The man truly believes his digital portal prevents the rape of real-life children, rather than inspiring it. Papa makes some articulate arguments; however, the fact remains he’s facilitated a world where people derive pleasure from children’s pain, even if that pain only exists on screen. Is murdering a life-like approximation of a child with an axe actually a permissible hobby?
As a viewer, The Nether is a complicated text. In this Canadian production of the American play, the performers were all competent and the dialogue was indeed engrossing. Having said that, I still felt gross when I left the theatre. I found myself squirming in my seat more than once. At other times, I audibly gasped in horror, especially when 9 year-old Iris, a VR child designed by Papa, lifts up her skirt to flash a customer. It should be noted that The Nether’s blocking has Iris’ back to the stage when she reveals herself; however, the fact that we do not see the child’s genitals does not make the scene less visceral or upsetting.
While the Iris of the script is not a real little girl, Hannah Levinson, the child actress who portrays her, certainly is. This fact inspires a host of ethical questions, forcing an audience member to wonder, is this play important enough to justify the position in which it places its youngest, most vulnerable star? Does art justify asking a child to lift up her skirt in mock seduction? Despite its mission to act as a debate on the ethics of virtual reality, The Nether – either intentionally or unintentionally – generates its own list of questions about the ethics of performance. This production is both morally murky, and meta as hell.
As a critic, I can’t decide whether I am glad to have seen The Nether, or if I regret it. But one thing’s for certain, I cannot stop thinking about it…
The Nether will play at Coal Mine Theatre in Danforth Village through November 4th.