Capital Stage favors provocative new plays that challenge the viewer. And "The Nether" — which comes with a prominent advisory about intense adult themes — more than lives up to this company’s reputation.
"The Nether" is a dystopian parable set in the near future, exploring the darker possibilities created by virtual reality and violent role-playing games. The cautionary tale is both thought-provoking and pretty disturbing, referencing the next phase that will come after our present day internet: a more immersive virtual world.
The story involves a businessman, Sims, who spends most of his waking hours online, raising flags with the security folks. An investigator, Detective Morris, wonders how he spends some 16 hours a day in the Nether. “What can be gained by spending so much time with something that isn’t real,” Morris asks Sims.
“Just because it’s virtual does mean it isn’t real,” Sims responds.
The businessman has developed a particularly detailed online destination called The Hideaway — a stately, idyllic-looking mansion in the late 1800s, where folks dress formally. Visitors enter under an adopted identity as avatars. And once they go in, they are introduced to what appear to be children. When they go behind closed doors, their interactions lead into an online experience involving sex and brutality. The security folks who police The Nether want to clamp down on The Hideaway, but the businessman objects.
We soon meet one The Hideaway’s regular customers. Offline, he is a respected, mild-mannered professor. But in the virtual realm, he participates in gruesome encounters, doing deeds online that would be highly criminal in real life. He rationalizes himself this way: “Can’t you see what a wonder it is that we can interact outside our bodies? It’s as revolutionary as discovering fire.”
Detective Morris isn’t buying it: “And just as dangerous. Who are we, when we interact without consequence? What can be revealed by feeling an axe slide through the flesh of a little girl?”
This play poses lots of very gnarly questions — such as, should it be legal to make money peddling extreme fantasy violence. And even if this online realm meets the letter of the law, is it ethical?
"The Nether" parallels famous dystopias like 1984. The play takes a ubiquitous phenomenon from our day — internet porn — and extrapolates what might evolve. This is not a show that everybody will want to see; the advisory regarding intense adult themes should be taken seriously. This play is supposed to make audiences feel uncomfortable, and it does. That’s what cautionary dystopias are designed to do, and by that standard, "The Nether" hits a bull’s eye in artistic terms — even as it leaves troubled viewers squirming in their seats.