The Nether

by Meg Currell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday October 4, 2016

Playwright Jennifer Haley thoughtfully explores the extreme potential of virtual worlds in The Nether," running through October 22 at Third Rail Theatre in Portland. Set slightly in the future, when the Internet has come to be known as the Nether and embodies a more robust environment incorporating all five senses, "The Nether" takes us to task for constantly pushing the boundaries of morality.

In this future, "reality" means the physical world solely, and the Nether is everything virtual/digital. The technology that gave rise to sophisticated video games has developed into producing fully conceived realms in which individuals spend the majority of their time. Far beyond the time-suck of the current Internet, the Nether is a place people chose to reside, like moving to a new city or neighborhood. Every experience is cultivated for specific interactive output, geared toward individual tastes and preferences.

Sims, also known as Papa, is being interrogated by Morris, an agent with a Nether-policing institution that has only recently been established. Morris has found out that the world Sims created provides a place for people to engage in something Morris feels is immoral. Sims (whose name seems like a play on The Sims video game, a world in which reality is simulated, and the characters are called "Sims") insists that everything in his world is legal, that he has followed the law to the letter.

Morris pushes, accusing Sims of offering a virtual reality in which the residents engage in pedophilia. Sims insists that all participants are over 18, citing his policy of background checks and age verification. The "children" interacting in the virtual reality are, in fact, adults behind the profile. Morris insists that doesn't matter, that Sims is normalizing pedophilia, and encouraging people to pursue immoral behavior.

"The Nether" presents the ultimate conundrum; how far do we want our laws to reach into human behavior? Do we police thought? Do we monitor and punish thoughts that we deem immoral? In a virtual space, where everything is essentially make-believe, where do we draw the line? Or do we even draw a line?

This play started an internal argument for me that still hasn't resolved. The idea of pedophilia is so disgusting I had to look away from the stage when contact seemed imminent, and yet the idea of an external agency policing imagination is revolting. "The Nether" doesn't suggest a solution, it only plots a path into the future based on our current trajectory, and asks us to take a good hard look.

Chantal DeGroat is the stern Morris, investigating Sims/Papa, played by Michael O'Connell. DeGroat is wonderful as the moral line daring everyone to cross; buttoned up in every way, she cedes no ground. O'Connell's Sims is intelligent, straightforward, and matter of fact. O'Connell is loose but calm, giving Sims an air of a successful businessman.

Josh Weinstein is Woodnut, an agent sent by Morris to infiltrate Sims' world. Del Lewis capably plays an older man who visits Sims' virtual world and plays the part of a child. The child is embodied in this show by Agatha Olson, a young actress who shimmers every time she steps onstage. Olson handles the difficult subject matter with ease, conveying the mundane nature of this pragmatic world. This is an actor who can clearly handle whatever the part demands, and then some. Watch for her.

"The Nether" is discomfiting, thought-provoking, and, as we inch closer to realizing such technology, an important conversation. Indeed, the question of policing morality is one we must address as a society, and playwright Haley forces us to consider what, exactly, we are willing to live with as a bright moral line, and how we make those decisions.

Third Rail Theatre consistently and deftly pushes boundaries of creative thought. This is an intriguing play that is beautifully executed and performed, and well worth your time.

"The Nether" runs through Oct. 22 at Imago Theatre, 17 SE 8th Ave, Portland, OR 97214. For tickets and information, call 503-235-1101 or visit http://thirdrailrep.org/company-history/coming-soon/the-nether/

Meg Currell is a freelance author based in Portland, where she moved for the coffee and mountain views. With a background in literature and music, she explores dance, concerts and DIY with equal enthusiasm. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories.