Review: “The Nether” – World Premiere of a Play About Life in Virtual Realities

The Nether logo

The Premise

The Nether is a new play by Jennifer Haley in which the moral complexity of the increasingly pervasive and addictive world of virtual reality is explored. IGR attended the world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, March 24th 2013.


“The Nether” tantalizes with timely, thought-provoking questions about the growing sophistication of the digital realm, and the possibility that it will become a more fulfilling place to “live” than the real world. Set in the not-too-distant future, where a detective investigates a highly interactive site in which taboo acts of secret desires are blurring the boundaries of right and wrong, and of virtual and real. She finds herself in a battle of wills with a charismatic suspect and wrestles with the question, is it a crime if the blood is just bits of computer code?

"The Nether" opening night - theatrical world premiere at Kirk Douglas Theater, Culver City, California - March 24th, 2013
“The Nether” opening night – theatrical world premiere at Kirk Douglas Theater, Culver City, California – March 24th, 2013 – Photo copyright

The Players

The cast comprises Brighid Fleming, Adam Haas Hunter, Robert Joy, Dakin Matthews and Jeanne Syquia who are directed by Neel Keller (Associate Artistic Director at Center Theatre Group.)

Fleming, the youngest cast member was a particular standout in the role of nine-year-old “Iris” – a virtual girl with some dark secrets. Her doll-like face, accentuated by big curls and vintage dresses serve her Janus-faced disposition as the actress shifts from squeals of delight to icy stares when “the rules” are violated. At one point, when she is “depopulated” by her real-life user, she rocks back and forth in place like an expectant avatar. A subtle but very powerful moment of choreography by Keller, executed beautifully by the actress.

The rest of the cast does well in managing the complex task of switching between the various personas by which they are inhabited – often very different from their physical selves. To say any more would be spoileresque.

A minor gripe is a scene wherein the meatspace characters login in and puppeteer their respective avatars. As the scene is playing above, the actors below are mouthing their words, but they are playing catch-up with the actors, and so it proves more distracting, and moreover, feels a little old fashioned. Of course, we do speak into headsets when roaming about MMO’s but we also type and I remember hours upon hours of life in Azeroth without speaking a word, thinking how odd it was that I was having lengthy conversations that could be heard only in my mind. On second thought, maybe that makes me old fashioned…

Robert Joy and Brighid Fleming in the world premiere of "The Nether" - Photo by Craig Schwartz
Robert Joy and Brighid Fleming in the world premiere of “The Nether” – Photo by Craig Schwartz

Sets, Costumes, Lights and Sound Magic

The eye-popping, cleverly conceived scenic design is by Adrian Jones who has effectively assembled a rotating life-sized dollhouse in whose belly is embedded the futuristic interrogation room allowing the audience to observe the meatspace below while the uptopian virtual world plays out on the second storey. It is very effective, contrasting the cold monochromatic color palette against the ornate and richly hued crimsons of the alternate reality of the Victorian themed “Hideaway.” This is further delineated by the excellent costume design by Alex Jaeger, using pallid grays and stark blacks for the real world and ascots, velvet jackets and frilly dresses for the virtual world.

Robert Joy and Jeanne Syquia in the world premiere of “The Nether.” Directed by Neel Keller, Jennifer Haley’s gripping new play explores the moral complexity of our increasingly virtual existence. “The Nether” is at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre, March 19 through April 14, 2013, with the opening on March 24. Photo by Craig Schwartz
Robert Joy and Jeanne Syquia in the world premiere of “The Nether.” Photo by Craig Schwartz

Christopher Kuhl’s lighting design utilizes a formidable arsenal of focused lights to draw attention to the action among the various compartments of the set, and some practical lights built into the set pieces and props to convey futuristic tech which, working in concert with blips and bloops by sound designer by John Zalewski, totally sells the effect. Zalewski also does some very nice subtle ambiance in the virtual world – using a subdued environmental track of wind, birdsong and other countryside cues to separate it from the throbbing low end hum of the future.

The Playwright

Playwright Jennifer Haley won the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for “The Nether,” which was developed at the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference and the Lark Play Development Center. She was a member of CTG’s 2011-2012 Writers’ Workshop where she wrote “Sustainable Living,” which was developed at the Ojai Playwrights Conference. Other plays include “Breadcrumbs” at the American Contemporary Theatre Festival, also produced locally at Theatre 150 in Ojai, “Froggy,” a graphic novel play, in development with American Conservatory Theatre and The Banff Centre.

In our interview with Haley, she admits to having survived a spell of World of Warcraft addiction (haven’t we all) after wanting to better understand the world that had consumed her younger brother. Haley says that “The Nether” – a name with inherently dark overtones, is not a cautionary tale so much as an examination of the effects and motivations that progressively sliding into virtual worlds may involve.

Watch IGR’s interview with Jennifer Haley below:

Her play actually serves as a contemporary magnifying glass for approaching the same questions that have fascinated us since we, as a species, could contemplate the nature of our existence: who are we? Why are we here? What defines us? Do our bodies define us? What of us remains beyond our corporeal constructs?

Adam Haas Hunter and Brighid Fleming in the world premiere of “The Nether.” Directed by Neel Keller. Photo by Craig Schwartz
Adam Haas Hunter and Brighid Fleming in the world premiere of “The Nether.” Directed by Neel Keller. Photo by Craig Schwartz

When taken this way, the play is a resounding success. For seasoned gamers, some of the concepts may feel a bit heavy-handed, but not so much as to come off as noobsp3@k. Haley clearly understands the experience of online cross-dressing, the value of virtual goods, the power of relationships forged thereof, and the language is consistent, never losing while parlaying the two concepts – of spirituality and gaming.

In its most transcendent facets, Haley proves that the lens of virtuality might be the most succinct metaphor, if not literal transport, into examining these philosophical quandaries we have ever had at our disposal. That said, she is not afraid to venture into some very delicate, morally gray areas, and for some may even prove deeply unsettling.

After becoming a fan of sleeper Judge Dredd and its dark themes mixed with the dizzyingly beautiful effect of the fictional drug “Slow-Mo,” I can’t wait to see a film adaption of The Nether which would provide a much richer ontological foundation…

The McGonigal Endorsement

We first heard about the “The Nether” via a tweet by visionary game designer, futurist and bestselling author of “Reality is Broken,” Jane McGonigal, who did a talk with playwright Jennifer Haley to discuss the implications of the increasing amount of time spent in virtual worlds in what some have termed a “mass exodus” from offline existence.

Watch IGR’s video interview from immediately after the talk with Jane McGonigal below:

The Details:

Tickets for “The Nether” are available by calling (213) 628-2772, online, in person at the Center Theatre Group box office at the Ahmanson Theatre or two hours prior to performances at the Kirk Douglas Theatre box office. The Kirk Douglas Theatre is located at 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232.

The play runs March 19th through April 14th, 2013.

[xrr rating=”4.5/5″]

Trailer/Interview with playwright Jennifer Haley and director Neel Keller: