Ethics pop quiz: Should our deeply personal online meanderings be subject to government or public scrutiny? If there are no victims or crimes involved with our digital urges, no matter how distasteful or depraved they may be, shouldn't they remain between our keyboards and our consciences?
Certainly, you may say, and Apple would tend to agree. But then there's this: What if those online dalliances include the likeness of a flaxen-haired young girl who is at the receiving end of a sharp, albeit virtual, weapon?
Such is the discomfiting stuff that the Village Repertory Company has undertaken with its compelling and commendable production of The Nether at the Woolfe Street Playhouse. Conjuring sci-fi societal prognosticators like Aldous Huxley and Margaret Atwood, Jennifer Haley's chilling, dystopian drama fast-forwards to the not-too-distant future to mine the morality of privacy in an increasingly digital world.
The play has enthralled audiences in both London and New York City, and now serves up its creepy, complex brew to locals craving meaty, challenging stage fare. The payoffs are considerable, thanks to well-crafted playwriting and a richly considered production. Still, prepare to have your head wrecked and your finer sensibilities savaged. After all, the story hinges upon some pretty gnarly deeds, including child molestation, dismemberment, and related pitch-dark desires.
The thrust is this: The internet has evolved into the so-called Nether, which has so subsumed the 3-D world that it now commands its own governing body. What's more, the Nether can simulate physical sensation — catnip for those anonymous users seeking titillation in the taboo. Of course, enterprising folk from the real world have invented ways to turn these predilections into profit.
In a stark, gray brick interrogation room, Detective Morris (Sierra Garland), a dogged, young female investigator, pounds questions at a silver-haired, unruffled Sims (played by Evan Parry with an oily insouciance that is as impressive as is it off-putting). It seems he's been making money by way of a scurrilous virtual realm called the Hideaway, a lush Victorian haven that trades in well-appointed, period historicism, alongside inappropriate longings of the pedophilic and psychopathic variety.
Detective Morris is bent on exposing the Hideaway as both criminal and craven. To that end, she has also brought in Mr. Doyle, a mild-mannered, perceptibly squeamish science teacher, who is served up with transfixing nuance and quiet command by Robin Burke. Doyle's Nether-world activities have been tracked to the Hideaway, and Morris regards him as the perfect pawn to finally break the impenetrable, arrogant Sims.
From there, we get our first glimpse of the world that Sims has created. A steel door opens to reveal an ornate tableau, spilling out the first of several resplendent splices in the stern wall through the course of the play. Sly and artful, this set designed by director Keely Enright serves as the perfect visual representation of how the seductive, fantastical charms of the internet work to animate drab lives.
Enter the winsome young Iris, portrayed with affecting grace and purity by Abby Hricik. Iris is the poster child of the meticulously curated realm dreamed up by Sims, a.k.a. Papa, who has schooled his eternally young ward in what plays — and in what is permitted — in the rule-ridden Hideaway. Carnality is a go, but asking personal questions about the humans behind the avatars is a definite no-go. We learn these ins and outs from Iris's exchanges with her new customer, Mr. Woodnut, played by Spencer Jones with fitting Victorian earnestness.
As the story advances, we learn that the line between our thoughts and actions is perilously, perplexingly blurred in the Information Age. That's brilliant terrain for a thriller. We grasp a fact, only to find it quickly undercut. We chase a lead, and it slips through our fingers into the World Wide Web.
Call me blood thirsty, but it could be argued that the menacing edge of the playwright's blade was mercifully tempered in the Village Rep's production. For instance, the scenes between the smug Sims and strident Morris offer an ideal foil for the dynamics at play in the Hideaway — the hunter and the hunted, the innocent and the damned. However, even without plumbing the most unsettling levels of salaciousness, there's still plenty of peril in this largely unflinching production to seriously scar a psyche.
If our desires remain safely shielded by avatars and virtual realms, existing in a collective imagination, are they fair game for public censure? If a tree falls in the virtual, trackless woods, did it legitimately fall?
For those of you ready to face down the implications of online interactions, be sure to get a ticket and then hold onto your seat. For those of you with something to hide in your virtual travels, you might want to hold onto your password, too.