Updated: Nov 16, 2021
"...Visitors to the Hideaway are there not just to taste the fresh air."
Our setting is, we presume, America, some years in the future. Here, in an interrogation room, Detective Morris (Adjovi Alice Koene) is questioning an effete gentleman named Sims (Wyn Moreno) about his activities in an all-encompassing virtual universe that has devolved into a bloated, grotesque descendant of the internet called the Nether, where people live out alternate realities. As his own avatar, Sims (also known by his clientele as Papa) has created a nostalgic, pseudo-Victorian haven called the Hideaway, where paying guests can indulge anonymously in their deepest, darkest desires with a series of eerily identical children.
It’s a gray, gray tomorrow that greets us in “The Nether,” Los Angeles-based dramatist Jennifer Haley’s very cunning and equally knotty Susan Smith Blackburn prize winning, Olivier nominated play about alternative lifestyles in a future around the corner. When visuals are first seen, Mauri Anne Smith’s fantastical set for this satisfying yet tautly twisted drama—which opened last night at The Wayward Artist in Santa Ana and runs through Sunday, November 21st—implies a devastated, ash-palette world leached of color, vegetation and even morals.
In their first production back to live theatre, The Wayward Artist takes an intelligent approach by largely getting out of the way of Haley’s thorny script. There’s a studied kind of distance in the performances of the committed cast that lets the ideas breathe—a welcome choice given how unsettling the story could have become in less careful hands. But if you are not aware of the billions spent on internet porn, let alone have discussed its ethical implications in polite society, Haley’s award-winning play may shock you out of your seat, taking on two of the most fearsome bête noires of our age: pedophilia and the internet's sinister imaginative power, and the symbiotic relationship between the two.
Haley's expertly crafted script, and the tension ratcheted up by Director Craig Tyrl’s hauntingly effective guidance, is a compelling, profoundly disturbing 85 minutes of theatre, hammered home by superb visuals, exquisite acting and futuristic costuming, which helps to physicalize our journey into this world and slowly wrap our heads around what’s going on beneath the surface. By the time the play ends, the world—both real and virtual—simply doesn't seem quite the same.
Granted, we begin our story in an interrogation room, not the kind of place known for festive décor. But, as layer after layer is uncovered, the dialogue begins to suggest that what lies beyond this grim chamber is no brighter. Blue skies and leafy green trees, it seems, are a thing of the past. But this alternative and inviting Eden isn’t real. Although, whenever you step into it, it might as well be. It is the custom-made reflection of one man’s fantasy. And we are told it is the most sophisticated example ever of a lush simulacrum, a complete virtual universe, to be reached only online. There’s only one catch.
Visitors to the Hideaway are there not just to taste the fresh air. They have come to carry out their sexual fantasies with, and, if they choose, even murder and mutilate the exquisite virtual children who live and play there.
As intriguing as the scenarios that Haley raises, the cast keeps us rooted to the particular characters and their story, which feels very much like a detective mystery, and packs some real surprises along the way. 15-year-old Jacqueline Jade’s performance as Iris is the most impressive and emblematic; she walks the finest of lines between playing the child and playing the adult behind as the child-avatar, between emotional distance and emotional honesty, between hitting us over the head and shying away from the situation. She comes across as just-enough-but-not-too-much of an adult as an actor, that we are not disturbed by watching the play examine these themes onstage right in front of us, and in turn, we are not let off the hook for what the story is supposed to be portraying.
But it’s true that any play that presents a pretty little girl as an object of desire is bound to provoke discomfort and gasp-worthy objections. Although winning seven Los Angeles Ovation Awards in 2015, and a nomination for Best New Play at the 2015 Olivier Awards, a few have suggested it trafficking in sensationalism. But would that change minds if we know that the girl—even if she is portrayed by a very skilled young flesh-and-blood actress like Ms. Jade— isn’t real, but an avatar of a presumably consenting adult?
Jumping back to the investigation, Ms. Koene as the prosecuting voice, Detective Morris, has had two men brought in for interrogation. One of them of course is Mr. Moreno’s Sims, who offers the rationalist and capitalist defense for its existence, which he says is entirely “in accordance with the statute of sensual role play.” Better, he says, to give unnatural desires free rein in the virtual world than to unleash them on the real one.
The other interviewee is a longtime Hideaway customer, Mr. Doyle (Patrick Vest), a science teacher, who has grown so addicted to the place that he wants to live there forever. His justification for an ephemeral Hideaway is more philosophical than Sims, and spends much time in an emotional state.
In her interrogations of Doyle and Sims, Morris also refers to a detective who had entered The Hideaway under cover as “a guest”: Woodnut, we rightly assume. Ronit Kathuria excels in his role as he befriends the young Iris. Yet avatars aren’t always who they say they are (the end of the play is especially intriguing with multiple character revelations).
Tainted by complicity, some of us are drawn deep into the story, even as we are repelled by much of the subject matter. And the superb performances—especially those of Mr. Moreno’s Papa/Sims and Mr. Vest’s Doyle—further muddles our natural instinct to avoid people who seek out pedophilic erotic thrills.
The entire cast was striking: Ms. Koene’s authoritative stance on her character was perfectly performed; Mr. Kathuria depicted a realistic take of a conflicted public servant who was slowly surrendering to temptation; and Ms. Jade’s interpretation of her role was exemplary.
“The Nether,” with its strong, mature theme, isn’t a play for all ages. Its appeal is that of an artful short story with disquieting topical resonance. But perhaps as a parable for where we’re headed on that big old highway in the digital sky, “The Nether” exerts a viselike grip, while taking you down avenues of thought you probably haven’t traveled before.
Featuring: Adjovi Alice Koene as Detective Morris; Wyn Moreno as Papa/Sims; Jacqueline Jade as Iris; Patrick Vest as Mr. Doyle and Ronit Kathuria as Mr. Woodnut.
Directed by Artistic Director Craig Tyrl; Gloria Perez - Stage Manager; Juan Delgado - Assistant Stage Manager; Mauri Anne Smith - Scenic Designer; Hannah Andersen - Costume Designer; Camille Roberts - Lighting Designer; Maddi Deckard - Sound Designer; Natalie Silva - Properties Designer; Ashely Strain - Technical Designer; Amanda Rose - Villareal Intimacy Coordinator.
“The Nether” by Jennifer Haley, a production of The Wayward Artist, located at 125 N. Broadway, Grand Central Arts Center, Santa Ana, CA 92701, performing November 12th – November 21st Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm, and Sundays at 2:00pm. Running time: approximately 85 minutes with no intermission. Students $15, Adults $25. COVID guidelines apply, including required masks, vaccinations and other CDC requirements. For information and reservations: http://www.thewaywardartist.org/ Box Office: 657-205-6273.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Francis Gacad