Spine: ‘The Nether’ and its Virtual Revolution at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

In the middle of Jennifer Haley’s beautifully poetic The Nether, now playing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, the detective quotes Theodore Roethke’s “In a Dark Time:”

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.

My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,

Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?

 Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey and Paul Vincent O’Connor. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey and Paul Vincent O’Connor. Photo by Scott Suchman.

At that moment in this virtually hypnotic journey into the heart of internet Taboo–whatever taboo you can imagine, from murder and mayhem to pedophilia, necrophilia, or any other kind of “philia” you might imagine or possess–one begins to realize The Nether’s darkest intent.

It’s not just that light is dark, or that desire is even darker, the real haunting future revealed by The Nether is that when the imagination is unhinged from all consequences, the darkness into which humanity plunges has no bottom and no light whatsoever.

The Nether is narrative poetic drama at its finest: it makes beautiful what, in reality, would drive you from the theatre in horror or disgust.

It makes delightful what would otherwise shatter your conscience and leave you squiggling on the floor.

Eerily, one might leave the theatre with the strangest sense of absolute liberty or with an inexplicable dread, as if God, denied from the beginning, actually emits its light into the most profound recesses of the soul.

The magnificent performance of Maya Brettell, as the forever nine-year-old Iris, is no doubt key to the play’s aesthetic transcendence. Her joy, her innocence, her giggling exuberance entrances the audience from her first appearance.

Tim Getman and Maya Brettell. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Tim Getman and Maya Brettell. Photo by Scott Suchman.

She brings wonder to the stage even as we sit in full knowledge of the fact that, if she were real and not merely a digital production of this virtual world of forbidden desires we would be witnessing an horrific crime enacted, and enacted, and enacted.

And each member of the cast–Edward Gero as Papa, Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey as Detective Morris, Tim Getman as Woodnut, and Paul Vincent O’Conner as Doyle–seeming falls in love with Iris’s vivacious presence.

As does the audience.

Should such theatrical voyeurism be illegal? Should this kind of experience in the theatre be banned, The Nether itself seems to be asking? Since no one left the theatre in moral outrage, should we all lose our privileges to theatre forever?

It seems we are in the midst of a revolution.

As modern medicine continues to free human beings from our own biology, so virtual reality technology allows human beings to explore aspects of experience that would otherwise leave us incarcerated.

The theatre is but an example of the old fashion technology that allowed actors and audiences to participate in forbidden enactments.

Imagine: you walk into an office, take out a Magnum, and blow the top of your boss’s head off. Then you walk into another room where… (you fill in the blank but make it sensuous and naughty).

You see, in a world driven by concepts of “right” and “wrong” that are rooted not in some God’s absolute decree but in a secular paradigm of adult consent (a consent where no victim suffers real pain or real humiliation), then the virtual world with its imaginary humans has no morality, for there are no real “physical” consequences.

Such is the moral universe of The Nether, in The Nether, that universe created when the internet truly achieves its virtual perfection.

You won’t need to go to school, or work, or even the theatre. All you will have to do is log in and with a push of a button you will arrive in the classroom, the office, or the Woolly of your wildest dreams.

Edward Gero. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Edward Gero. Photo by Scott Suchman.

You won’t even have to watch the play, if you don’t want to. You’ll be able to act in it. You’ll be Hamlet, and it will be your sword that slides through Polonius’s guts and elicits ecstasy on your face.

The production team for The Nether, led by Director Shana Cooper and her visionary direction, needs to be commended for bringing the metaphysically virtual world to Woolly’s wood and concrete space.

It turns out that Sibyl Wickersheimer’s sets, which impose their presence on the audience from the preshow, are literally non-existent, totally enhanced by Colin K. Bills’s lights.

But a real star of the show are the video projections by Jared Mezzocchi. You won’t need to take any hallucinogenic drugs for this theatrical trip de force. Plus, the original music and sound by Eric Shimelonis will make it all seem paradisal and sweet.

If you wake up feeling guilty, you only have yourself to blame.

Of course, the implications of this unleashing of desire’s darkest attributes is utterly unknown. Who knows where it might end.

In the famous 1950’s science fiction film, Forbidden Planet, a society had reached perfection: they created an infinite energy source and they eliminated evil from their lives.

The only thing for which they failed to account were the unconscious dimensions of their human psyches: in Freudian terms, their IDs.

(Spoiler Alert) Their IDs destroyed them.

Jennifer Haley’s The Nether will explode in your imagination like one of Baudelaire’s flowers of evil. It will inhabit your imagination for some time to come, provoking questions and summoning answers.

It will unsettle you (or, at least, it should), but only later as you sip coffee and consider the future.

And the possible consequences…

…of a world without consequences!

Running time: 80 minutes without intermission.


The Nether plays through May 1, 2016 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company –  641 D Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.

Review: ‘The Nether’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company by David Gerson.

Spine: ‘The Nether’ and its Virtual Revolution at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company by Robert Michael Oliver.

Magic Time! ‘The Nether’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company by John Stoltenberg.


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