The Nether - Flat Earth Theatre

The Nether - Flat Earth Theatre

 Photo Credit: Jake Scaltreto. Pictured: Jeff Gill and Regine Vital

Photo Credit: Jake Scaltreto. Pictured: Jeff Gill and Regine Vital

The Nether – Flat Earth Theatre

Review by James Wilkinson

The Nether is presented by Flat Earth Theatre. Written by Jennifer Haley. Directed by Sarah Gazdowicz. Assistant Director Cassie Chapado. Set Designer: Rebecca Lehrhoff. Costume Designer: Coriana Hunt Swartz. Assistant Costume Designer: Erica Desautels. Props Designer: Jake Scaltreto. Lighting Designer: Connor S. Van Ness. Sound Designer: Kyle Lampe. Dramaturg Annalise Cain. 

A few days before I went to see Flat Earth Theatre’s production of The Nether, I mentioned to a friend that I was going, but that I hadn’t had time to read up on what the plot of the show was. As it happens, this friend was familiar with the play and he had one piece of advice for me: Don’t look up what it’s about, just go. Having now come out the other side and seen what Flat Earth Theatre has done with the piece, I’m thrilled that I took his advice. There are several mysteries at work in Jennifer Haley’s 2010 play and part of the fun in the experience comes from letting those mysteries deepen in front of you as you pick up the clues, fall for the red herrings and piece together exactly what it is you’re watching. So I’m going to go ahead and give you the same piece of advice. Don’t look up what it’s about, just go. It’s a wonderfully intoxicating evening of theater to experience. The trick I now have in front of me then is to figure out how to properly recommend this show to you without spoiling too much of the plot.

Alright, challenge accepted….

The title of the play, The Nether, refers to a telecommunication operating system that connects computers worldwide. Basically…it’s the internet. Except the Nether goes a step further than what the internet is currently capable of, allowing individuals to enter a virtual reality world they can explore. It’s so real, users can hardly tell the difference. At the start of the play, one of the Nether’s administrators is interrogating two of these users. In the “real world” a crime has been committed (or is it being committed?) and it may connect to the hidden cyber hideaway that one of these men has created in the Nether that allows individuals to live out the darkest of human fantasies. 

Haley’s play is unapologetically a science fiction story and it’s wonderfully refreshing as we don’t often get to see that genre play out on stage. Perhaps it’s because of Sci-Fi’s usual reliance on special effects and gadgets that it’s flourished more in the mediums of film (with its larger budgets) and novels (where budgets don’t matter), but plays like Haley’s proves that with the right touch, the genre can work just as well onstage. Like the best science fiction, it takes our immediate concerns about technology in the world and spins them out into larger philosophical questions. What is reality? What are our relationships to our bodies? What are our responsibilities to our bodies? To others around us? It’s really a joy to listen to a script that very intelligently lays out ideas for consideration all within a well-told story. The work encourages you to think on a deeper level so that your relationship to the piece grows exponentially. 

Of course, no matter how good the script is, it’s all in the execution and here Flat Earth Theatre shines, capping off a terrific season of theater. Director Sarah Gazdowicz manages to somehow approach the play with both a light and heavy touch. There’s no overarching concept tacked on to the production to bog it down, rather Gazdowicz carefully picks her moments in the play to heighten the reality of the scene to build on the world that Haley’s play lays out. There are moments when Kyle Lampe’s sound design appears to sneak in, underscoring the dialogue and ratcheting up the tension. At other times, the glow from Connor S. Van Ness’ lighting design and Rebecca Lehrhoff’s set design appears to pulse and throb with an energy of its own. The culmination is a haunting and menacing energy that seems to have soaked down to the core of the production. 

That’s not to say that there aren’t moments of humor in the piece, although it’s a type of humor that hits you in waves. Again, without giving away spoilers, I found myself laughing at certain moments and then a few minutes later cringing at why I laughed at something so incredibly dark. Kudos to the cast for playing the scenes straight as they do. Given that dark subject matter, it would be understandable to see the actors try to pull back from what the play asks them to do and discuss. Instead, the company goes digging into the uncomfortable emotions behind their characters actions, playing them honestly and the production is richer for it. 

When Flat Earth Theatre announced this season, they called it their season of dissent. However, sitting in the theater watching this production of The Nether and thinking about the past productions of A Bright Room Called Day and Antigone, the word that kept popping up in my head was ‘responsibility.’ Not so much in the sense of blame, but rather in the sense of what is owed. A great deal of the philosophical discussion in The Nether has to do with what happens when humans can move into a space where actions appear to have no consequences and the id can run free. The first season of HBO’s Westworld (another Sci-Fi affair) also worked to pose the same question. Given that all actions do have consequences and that those actions will shape the world around us, what is our individual responsibility to society? To our families? Friends? Does such a responsibility even exist at all? I think that Flat Earth’s season answers that it does and given that we’re living in a time where society is rethinking its approach to gender and the inclusion of underrepresented groups, it’s a good reminder that the world ahead is of our own making. 

The Nether is presented by Flat Earth Theatre at The Black Box at the Mosesian Center for the Arts June 8-23, 2018.

For tickets and more information, visit their website: www.flatearththeatre.com

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