In Review

The Nether

4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars - 'Right on the Money'
San Francisco Playhouse
Starring Matilda Holtz / Carmen Steele, Warren David Keith, Louis Parnell, Ruibo Qian and Josh Schell
Written by Jennifer Haley
Directed by Bill English
Review by Cy Ashley Webb

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.

The Nether - San Francisco Playhouse Review
Doyle (Louis Parnell) and Sims (Warren David Keith) reconnect outside the Nether.
The Nether - San Francisco Playhouse Review
Woodnut (Josh Schell) connects with Iris (Carmen Steele) in the Hideawa

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.

The Nether - San Francisco Playhouse Review
Iris (Carmen Steele) sits on a bench in the garden at the Hideaway.

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

Cy Ashley Webb
Cy spent the ‘80’s as a bench scientist, the tech boom doing intellectual property law, and the first decade of the millennium, aspiring to be the world’s oldest grad student at Stanford where she is interested in political martyrdom. Presently, she enjoys writing for Stark Insider and the SF Examiner, hanging out at Palo Alto Children's Theatre, and participating in various political activities. Democracy is not a spectator sport! Cy is a SFBATCC member.