In the Moment: ‘The Nether’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

The seeds of Jennifer Haley’s award-winning The Nether now at DC’s Woolly Mammoth and Philly’s InterAct were planted long, long ago. Twenty years ago in fact, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age written by Allucquere Rosanne Stone was published.

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

Stone’s book examines with sharp eyes and no boundaries, that shape-shifting, living on the edge, and identity can be cultural constructions of on-line social spaces. Now before you move on, the 1995 Stone book published by MIT Press is still in print. It is still read.

To be more specific, Stone wrote a fascinating, original work with great wit and almost as a performance pieces, that in the cyber world, identity would be fluid and disruptions would be encouraged. Stone suggested that there should be expected a conflict between the real, physical world and the cyber (digital) world that technology could and would provide. If I don’t take out of context, she also wrote that the “transgendered body is the natural body.”

Before seeing The Nether, I reread my well-read edition of Stone’s penetrating, totally provocative work. I mean she postulated back in 1995 that modern technology would challenge traditional notions of gender identity.

What Stone seemed to argue was that in the digital work, any identity is possible, if not encouraged? From reading Stone, I became intrigued and became aware of a mid 1980’s piece by Donna Haraway entitled Cyborg Manifesto. Here is a link to her seminal work about identity and boundaries entitled Cyborg Manifesto. It is still mentioned in technology related publications such as Wired.

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

After taking in a recent production of The Nether at the Philadelphia’s Interact Theater, I overheard the thoughts and words of the mostly Baby Boomer audience as they left the theater. Many seemed perplexed if not incredulous about what had transpired before them. Could such a thing happen? And not just virtual world death and pedophilia, but about what is the true identity of a person? Is it the real life physical space of a person, or the digital avatar that a person lives?

Putting aside the specific issues of murder and pedophilia raised in The Nether by playwright Haley, isn’t that what the crux of the play is about? It really isn’t sci-fi at all, at least to me. It exists already, right now in any number of on-line social spaces.

So there have been underpinnings for The Nether that perhaps playwright Haley was totally aware of and had read. Or maybe she loved Blade Runner. Or perhaps she has an avatar somewhere in Second Life. Whatever.

The Nether is way more than provoking theater art. It may well be how people will live as they put on their virtual reality headsets and drift away on a daily basis. The future VR and AI worlds will be constructed in ways no one can predict. But what will be most fascinating; the battle between art and technology. The rubs and slaps of free-thinking artists such as Jennifer Haley making sure audiences are aware of what is at stake and the technologists creating these brave new worlds. Now what an interesting confrontation that will make. It ain’t science fiction at all.

Running Time: 80 minutes, with no 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.

The Nether deals with adult themes and is not appropriate for children under the age of 16.

More From DCMTA:
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.

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

In the Moment: ‘The Nether’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company on  DCMetroTheaterArts by David Siegel.

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.


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