Smart, creepy Nether wows at SF Playhouse

Jan 25

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Iris (Carmen Steele) marvels over the Victorian world that Papa (Warren David Keith) has created in Jennifer Haley’s The Nether at San Francisco Playhouse. Below: Doyle (Louis Parnell, left) is questioned by Detective Morris (Ruibo Qian) about his dealings in the Nether, a futuristic version of the Internet where virtual reality is more than just a high-concept toy. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

There aren’t that many plays with the power to totally creep you out and entertain you mightily. Such is the power of Jennifer Haley’s The Nether at San Francisco Playhouse in a production that is stunning in all the right ways (director Bill English and set designer Nina Ball do yeomans work here).

The play is only 80 minutes, but it packs a mighty wallop. Here you have a play that is, ostensibly, about the rape and murder of children, but it’s not horrific. It’s nifty sci-fi trick is to set the action in the near future when virtual reality has become a big part of life. The Internet has evolved into something called the Nether, and, happy to say, there are still laws in the future, although how they govern (or don’t) the Nether and virtual reality is a big part of what the drama is about. So no actual children are harmed, but even in theory, seeing man holding an ax standing next to a little girl makes your skin crawl.

I reviewed The Nether for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s a peek:

Haley has crafted a piece of theatrical science fiction that works astonishingly well straddling two realities. Theater itself is already a kind of virtual reality, so it’s the perfect place for Haley’s futuristic tale of a world where trees barely exist anymore and more and more people (called “shades”) are living their lives inside a more evolved Internet known as “the nether,” where lifelike communities are formed and imaginations (and morals and laws) are unbound.
This is a tricky, provocative 80-minute drama that could outrage audiences except that it’s so intelligently crafted that fascination trumps shock in this story of authorities going after the creators of a virtual world in which adults, adhering to Victorian dress and custom, interact with children who are then sexually abused and murdered (only to be regenerated by the program in a never-ending cycle).
As sick as that sounds, keep in mind that none of it’s real — it’s consensual role playing among adults who pay to be there (or, in the case of the “children,” adults who are employed by the virtual reality creators).

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You can read the review in its entirety here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Jennifer Haley’s The Nether continues through March 5 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

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