The Nether: a challenging look into a virtual future

Jungle Theater, through October 15

Stephen Yoakam (Papa/Sims) and Mo Perry (Detective Morris) in the Jungle Theater’s The Nether. Photo by Dan Norman.

Great science fiction envisions and anticipates an uncertain future with equal amounts of enthusiasm and fear. While new technologies solve problems and bring great gains to quality of life, they also have a dangerous capacity to alter lives in fundamental ways and create new, troubling habits—like reliance on social media for interpersonal relationships. As these technologies trend to allow increasing access to once impossible experiences, what happens when they also allow for experiences repulsive to society?

This is the question explored by Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, a twisty crime procedural currently at the Jungle Theater through October 15th.  The Nether takes place in a society several generations in the future in which society spends most of their time online in virtual reality realms. Civilians there are educated online, work online, and largely play online, and dark corners of the internet give way to hidden online simulations of some of the most horrific activities imaginable.

A detective, part of a task force investigating said illicit virtual activities, interrogates the creator of and a participant in The Hideaway, one such deviant online sphere. This investigation serves as a jumping point for the show to move through dark, surprising, and probing twists to explore the human psyche and the ethics of digital interaction. It must be said that due to the detestable nature of The Hideaway, the show is a supremely discomfiting experience. This is not only because the fantasies fulfilled within The Hideaway are deplorable, but because it is hard to imagine a world in which such simulations will not at some point become reality.

Despite its uncomfortable subject matter, The Nether never fails to be engaging. Haley’s writing walks a fine line between disgust and empathy, and each twist carries emotional weight and avoids exploitation. This is aided by director Casey Stangl’s minimalist approach that more evokes settings than displays them – a fitting move for a show that moves between dystopian and imaginary realms. This approach also serves to draw attention to the characters and their internal conflict, and Stangl coaxes impressive performances from the actors.

That cast uniformly excels, featuring some of the Twin Cities’ most respected names. Local stage giant Stephen Yoakam anchors the cast as Hideway creator Papa/Sims, injecting subtle moments of humanity into a character largely defined by cruel narcissism—an extraordinary challenge. Detective Morris, who gives life to much of the plotting in the real world, is played with toughness by Mo Perry, who shines when revealing the circumstances—both online and in reality—that motivate her pursuits. JuCoby Johnson believably carries out his conflicted performance as Woodnut, solely existing in the virtual space. Special accolades are due Craig Johnson for carrying much of the show’s emotional weight and exquisitely demonstrating the extreme pain and conflict that torments Doyle’s dismal inner life.

This is a smart production, utilizing a versatile multi-media set design (by Lee Savage) and effectively subtle sound and lighting ques (sound by C. Andrew Mayer, lighting by Barry Browning). It is also smart in recognizing the urgency of what it invites its audience to consider. While it is tempting to think such hypothetical moral quandaries are not vital, The Nether argues convincingly that if we do not address and anticipate the future, we may find ourselves on the losing side of the fight before we knew it began.

David and Chelsea Berlund review movies on their site Movie Matrimony.

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