Updated: Dec 13, 2021
'The Nether' depicts the evolution of virtual reality
The Wayward Artist serves up Jennifer Haley’s 2011 play, a sci-fi crime drama that delves into questions of ethics and morals, technology, and the human condition.
By Eric Marchese
Imagine a future where you can completely lose yourself in a virtual world that seems more real than your actual existence – and that option offers a welcome relief to your life’s increasingly harsh bleakness.
If that premise appeals to you, you’ll want to be there for “The Nether,” The Wayward Artist’s next show.
Playwright Jennifer Haley’s sci-fi crime drama is the Santa Ana-based company’s first new live production since late 2019’s “God of Carnage,” thanks to the pandemic shutdown that began in March of 2020.
At the directorial helm is Craig Tyrl, the company’s artistic director, who said that while some facets of “The Nether” are reminiscent of previous works of literature and series television, the 2011 play is unlike anything he has ever seen – and that audiences will be equally impressed.
“The Nether,” he said, “is both a serpentine crime drama and haunting science-fiction thriller that explores the consequences of living out our private dreams.”
“It’s a dark science-fiction detective story about identity, human urges and desire, and technology’s influence on our lives,” Tyrl said. “It’s like a good episode of Netflix’s ‘Black Mirror,’ if you know the show.”
The play is set in the near future. The internet has evolved into a vast network of virtual reality realms known as The Nether. People simply choose an identity, then log in to a complete sensory virtual wonderland where they can indulge any desire.
One of these realms – known as the Hideaway – provides a dark form of sexual entertainment where pedophiles may live out their fantasies involving children. That makes the Hideaway a place of interest for Morris, a young detective who begins an investigation of the realm’s creator and into its patrons and the virtual realm itself. Her goal is to put a halt to the perversions being propagated by the Hideaway.
Tyrl said that while interrogating the realm’s creator, Morris discovers that its patrons “have made emotional attachments in the Hideaway that blind them to the greater questions of ethical behavior, both in the imagination and the outside world.”
Morris’ probe triggers an interrogation into the darkest corners of the imagination. Her discoveries into a world of moral ambiguity are so disturbing as to leave her, and her suspects, forever changed.
Tyrl said that when he first read it, he “fell in love with the play because of what it has to say about human identity in a world of evolving technology, social media, and human isolation. To create this on stage with a live audience was exciting to me.”
The play, Tyrl said, lives simultaneously in both the future and the Victorian Age. The present-day of the not-too-distant future – real life – “is cold, sterile, and bleak. The Nether is a Victorian virtual reality that’s warm, organic, and full of life.”
The play evenly splits its time between the harsh interrogation room where Morris conducts her investigation and the welcoming world of The Nether. Tyrl said that for the play to succeed, “transitioning between the worlds must be magical and in sharp contrast.”
“The Nether” was first developed at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center as part of the 2011 National Playwrights Conference. It received its world premiere at the Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in March 2013 in a production that won seven Ovation Awards for design, acting, and playwriting for an original play. The play also won the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.
While the interrogation room scenes evoked the “Law and Order” franchise for Tyrl, most of “The Nether” meshes various aspects of a number of familiar sci-fi stories seen on the small and big screens.
Tyrl cited elements of two additional cable series that, like “Black Mirror,” share elements with “The Nether”: “Upload,” in which “when you die, your consciousness gets uploaded to a virtual reality,” and “Electric Dreams,” which examines the future and technology.
All three shows, he notes, “explore what the future will look like,” including “the current trajectory of evolving technologies and social media, and how these permeate other aspects of life, whether politics or education.”
Tyrl also sees thematic similarities in two theatrical movies that preceded “The Nether” – “The Matrix,” he said, in depicting “a computer-based virtual world where pure existence can be found,” and “Avatar,” in the way “its characters taking on another existence…being able to pick your identity and experience the world in a completely new way that changes you.”
Tyrl said that creating the worlds envisioned by Haley has been no mean feat, considering Wayward’s rather limited resources.
“The challenge of our small space has meant a more minimalist approach to the script. We have added a video designer not explicitly stated in the script to provide futuristic content as well as POV about the modern audience and its relationship to the not-too-distant future.”
Wayward’s production will combine “TV monitors, Victorian costumes, futuristic Victorian props, and a thoughtful but minimalist scenic design.” Tyrl said he is capping seating in the 73-seat venue to a maximum of 60 to give the staging a more spacious feel.
As director, Tyrl has tapped the talents of Mauri Smith as scenic designer, costume designer Hannah Andersen, Sydney Fitzgerald as production manager, Maddi Deckard for sound and video design, Ashley Strain as technical director, Camille Roberts for lighting design and Natalie Silva for properties design.
Tyrl calls his cast “the most talented group of actors I’ve ever had the pleasure of directing at Wayward. Working with them is phenomenal. Every night I leave rehearsal knowing this show is going to be spectacular.”
Adjovi Alice Koene plays Detective Morris; Wyn Moreno, from Wayward’s cast of “Next to Normal,” is Papa, the creator of the Hideaway; Ronit Kathuria is Mr. Woodnut; Patrick Vest is Mr. Doyle; and 15-year-old Jacqueline Jade portrays Iris.
In the end, Tyrl said, “Haley’s work delves into the questions of morality, technology, and human existence,” forcing us to confront some unpleasant aspects of the human condition.
See “The Nether” and you’ll witness the possibility of being able to live completely in a virtual world. Audiences, he said, will be left with this unsettling question: “What happens to humanity when technology makes this possible?”
Eric Marchese has written about numerous subjects over more than 35 years as a freelance and staff journalist for a wide variety of publications, but is best known as a critic, feature writer and news reporter covering theater and the arts throughout Orange County and beyond.
Location: Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, unit E, Santa Ana.
Run dates/curtain times: November 12-21. Thu.-Sat. 7:30 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m.
Tickets: $25 general, $15 student.
Information/reservations: 657-205-6273, thewaywardartist.org
[Advisory: Mature content – adults only]