BWW Review: Actor's Bridge Ensemble's THE NETHER

Leave it to the ambitious and creative people of Nashville's Actors Bridge Ensemble to continue the celebration of the company's 20th anniversary season with the presentation of a new and compelling play - The Nether by Jennifer Haley - which ushers audiences into the dystopian, virtual world that has evolved into something closer to reality in the not-too-distant future. It's an intriguing choice, to be sure, and one which could be fraught with failure and pretension were it not for the superb production concept and vision of director/producer Jessika Malone, given the wherewithal by ABE producing artistic director and co-founder Vali Forrister to challenge audiences in every way possible and to upend all conventional thought with a production that continues to haunt me almost a week after seeing it.

Malone and Forrister, who with their other ABE compatriots continue to push the theatrical envelope in Nashville with their bold and illuminating choices, ensure that The Nether is presented in an immersive atmosphere which heightens the play's cerebral yet totally inclusive tone and which ensures the play will continue to be talked about for months - perhaps even years - to come. Malone's taut and focused direction of her five-member ensemble (which includes an electrifying performance by Forrister) brings the play to life with dramatic intensity that is underscored by the physical trappings of the production.

With this production, ABE inaugurates its new home at The Darkhorse Chapel (which seems the perfect symbiosis of a pair of iconic Nashville theatrical entities) and, in doing so, crafts the perfect setting for The Nether, which takes its audiences down a heretofore unexamined rabbit hole of nefarious and rather dirty derring-do that emerges from the darkest corners of the imagination. Playwright Haley creates a world in her script that is not difficult to comprehend nor to fathom; rather, it resides just outside the lines of a life led within the constraints of polite society.

Since its inception, the internet (which in Haley's futuristic vision has become known as The Nether) has provided its users and denizens the relative comfort of obscurity with its cloak of invisibility, allowing them to access their deepest, darkest desires while continuing to show the world a far different identity. Ergo, a middle-aged man can pretend to be a pre-pubescent girl, indulging his sexual whims and closeted delights as he diddles, has dalliances and otherwise gives voice to his barely concealed proclivities.

While that provides The Nether with its base of operations, if you will, it's neither fictional nor fanciful. Rather, it's the result of untethered exploration made possible by that aforementioned cloak of invisibility that allows anyone, everyone, to be the character they wish to be in the confines of that mysterious world found somewhere in the ether.

But in the world created by Haley, society has evolved to the point that individuals can create new lives for themselves in this otherworldly setting - to the point that society now finds a need to police the activities of those who have left the real world, as it were, to indulge themselves via their onscreen avatars in the secret settings that have been created for the express purpose of experiencing that which heretofore has been limited because of laws and a sense of common decency and decorum.

Haley's play centers on the investigation of a certain Mr. Sims (impressively played with the right amount of bombast and restraint by Rodney Pickel), who has created a pseudo-Victorian world in which pedophiles can indulge in sexual adventures with their chosen types, safe from civil and criminal law and societal mores. Detective Morris (Forrister, in yet another superb performance, shows off her skills to perfection while reminding audiences how bereft they have been due to her onstage absences - give us more Vali onstage, please) conducts her investigation of Sims and his perhaps horrifying creation in order to determine what motivates him and his followers.

We meet the play's other characters - a 60-something teacher who is a devotee of Sims' world (which is just around the corner from the bucolic worlds created by people who find themselves fascinated by the The Sims), played with a sense of forlorn grace by Phil Perry, in a performance that is courageous in its total lack of guile; Woodnut, a detective who has infiltrated the world in order to determine the pervasiveness of Sims' depravity (Bralyn Stokes in a perfectly calibrated performance that become ever more apparent as the story unfolds before you); and young, winsome Iris, the manipulative object of desire who sets the mystery into motion with her all-knowing sensibilities that belie her youth and her creator's parameters for her character. Iris is played by one of Nashville's most notable young actors - Robin August Fritsch, who delivers a star-making turn in her role that requires her to be wise beyond her years in a way that is even more disturbing than you may at first comprehend. Fritsch's beguiling demeanor results in a performance that actors of far more varied and experienced backgrounds could rightfully envy.

It's a discomfiting process that takes place in an uncomfortable setting that's all the more unsettling due to the almost claustrophobic confines in which the audience gains admission into this underground world of repression, repulsion and sexual deviance. Are you titillated or turned off by what you're seeing and hearing from Haley's well-defined characters? Would you be more at ease if you were peering into this nether world of sexuality and intrigue if you were sitting alone in a darkened room of your own choosing? The Nether poses all these questions and more, many of which are sure to challenge the viewer's thoughts of what is right, what is wrong, and what lives in the no-man's-land between the two.

Even at the conclusion of Haley's fast-moving (thanks to Malone's exquisite direction) 80-minute play, you are likely to be uncertain about what you have just seen and, more to the point, how you feel about what you have just seen. But like the very best of theater, The Nether is compelling, transporting you to another time and place in which you will confront ideas and issues that you may have nurtured within your own heart and soul, unbeknownst to those closest to you. Be forewarned: Once the door is closed, and you have been warned to keep your feet inside the lines, the countdown begins to when you can once again regain your freedom - be it your freedom to move, to speak, to think. You will find yourself controlled in unforeseen ways as The Nether plays out and you are unlikely to shrug off the constraints until you've been able to completely decompress.

For the audience, the experience begins immediately upon entry into The Darkhorse Chapel, transformed by scenic designer Mitch Massaro and lighting designer Richard K. Davis into Café Limbo, an internet café in which each audience member is given credentials to gain online access to the immersive experience that is The Nether. Greeted by staff members Cassie Hamilton, Eric Ventress, Lexi Nimmo and James Sperring - who vacillate between gracious and welcoming hosts to threatening and oppressive tour guides depending upon what suits the moment best - you are thrust into this vividly imagined, but not so far-fetched, setting in which the Simses of the world are given free rein to bring their fantasies to life. Hilary Frames' costumes are stunning, giving each character the proper garments in which to conduct their online lives in the simple and thoroughly evocative world designed by Massaro, which is beautifully lit by Davis' extraordinary vision.

  • The Nether. By Jennifer Haley. Directed by Jessika Malone. Presented by Actors Bridge Ensemble at The Darkhorse Chapel, Nashville. Through December 13. Running time: 80 minutes, with no intermission. For details, go to www.actorsbridge.org.


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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis