BWW Review: THE NETHER at Benchmark Theatre
Anyone else waste their summer vacations playing The Sims all day? Escaping to a world where you're in control, and there's few limitations to what you can do.
That's essentially the premise of Benchmark Theatre's thrilling inaugural production of Jennifer Haley's The Nether, which explores the boundaries of where futuristic virtual reality meets roleplay. The 2012 winner of the Susan Blackburn Prize takes a dark look at what society might create in a simulated world without limits. The Nether is a strong regional premiere for Benchmark.
Directed by Benchmark Co-Founder Rachel Bouchard, the engaging crime drama/sci-fi thriller follows an investigation of a realm in The Nether, which is like an evolved interweb. By logging on through a portal, users choose an identity and experience lifelike sensations.
The riveting one-act is a fascinating glimpse into human nature. If there was a place where you could freely explore your wildest fetishes without consequence, how much would you fully immerse yourself? And how often? Would you prefer it to your day-to-day life?
The questions this play makes you ask yourself is one of its most engaging parts.
In the futuristic world of the show, The Nether is where users can experience what life used to be like--blue skies, green grass, earthly features we often take for granted. Throughout the show, it becomes increasingly clear The Nether is more than a fun virtual escape, it's where users can live a comfortably free life again.
In one specific realm, complete with Victorian charm and what seems to be a brothel for children referred to as the Hideaway, pedophilia is acceptable as long as certain (awkwardly brutal) rules are followed. When Detective Morris, (Haley Johnson, another co-founder of Benchmark) discovers the activity going on in this realm, she tracks down its creator, Sims, known in the realm as Papa (Marc Stith), to investigate whether this realm goes against The Nether's principles. She also interrogates one of its frequent guests, Doyle (Jim Hunt), a retired teacher who is considering transitioning his entire life into the Hideaway.
But how can a virtual world be patrolled when there are virtually no rules?
Of course, there's a thin line as the children are not actually real children, but avatars embodied by consenting adults. One child, Iris (a dynamically mature Ella Madison), seems to be a popular among the Hideaway's guests as well as a favorite of Papa, who treats her with an emotional connection she seems to crave over the simulated relationships she receives from most guests. That is until Woodnut (Cameron Varner) comes to visit.
A scenic design by Christopher M. Waller incorporates exquisite projections, bringing the Hideaway's lush environment to life admidst a mainly monochromatic set. The projections are also smartly incorporated into preshow videos by Susannah McLeod (featuring several local actors, ) explaining The Nether just enough to keep you questioning what you're heading into. Show up early to catch these. An original score by Haushold brings the perfect vibe for the show's atmosphere.
If you're a fan of show like "Black Mirror" or "Westworld," or if you appreciate the kind of daring theatre that leaves you uncomfortably stewing on questions long past its conclusion, The Nether is required viewing. If this is any indication of Benchmark's upcoming productions, give me a realm where I can watch performances like theirs all day.
Through April 23
Thursday - Saturday evenings, 8 p.m.
Sunday evenings, 6 p.m.
$30 general admission