The Nether is the successor of the Internet. Instead of a futuristic netherland, this Jennifer Haley play feels like a virtual Second Life crossed with regions of the dark web , with forays down the Silk Road. If that makes you squeamish, the San Francisco Playhouse production of The Nether, hits the mark. In this netherworld, no one is as they seem.
SF Playhouse repeatedly returns to those remote outposts – like that of the charismatic outlaw with his entourage of randoms in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, or Bengal Tiger’s domain in Baghdad Zoo. Taken at a distance, even the notion self gets redefined.
SF Playhouse is at its best here. In exploring virtual extensions of self, director Bill English returns to questions raised in SF Playhouse’s 2011 production, Wirehead, which examined the interface between tech and self. The Nether is a lens to look related issue of virtual selves in virtual communities. Heady stuff – that might cut a little close – especially if you already spend the day peering into a screen to connect with people you may never know.
So much was note perfect in this production. Nina Ball, whose normally killer sets pepper Bay Area stages, outdid herself here, with four designs mounted on a turntable, each contributing to the overall tone with its jarring distinctness.
Ruibo Qian gives a fierce performance as Morris, a detective investigating activities in the Nether. She questions Sims, (Warren David Keith), creator of a sector of the Nether, whose opaque answers alternate with indignant protestations that his behavior was protected by law.
We see Iris, alternately played by Carmen Steele and Matilda Holtz, though the eyes of both investigator Woodnut (Josh Schell) and Sims. Holtz performed the night I was there, giving the audience an utterly convincing flower on the brink of womanhood.
All the hype about this production is true.
Lastly, Bay Area stage veteran Louis Parnell plays the sad Doyle, with some childlike aspect of his personality percolating through to Iris.
All the hype about this production is true. The Nether is a 90 minute heart-in-mouth experience that will keep you at the edge of your seat, with brain rapidly attempting to decode where this is going and what it all means.
Photos by Jessica Palopoli