Rebecca May Ristow | Managing Editor
The Theatre & Performance Media Program at Eastern Connecticut State University recently closed their production of The Nether by Jennifer Haley. The play, which was directed by Professor Kristen Morgan and assisted by student Eric Roesler, ran from March 2nd - 5th in the Fine Arts Instructional Center's Delmonte Bernstein Studio. The Nether originally premiered at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in California in March 2013, but actually had its beginnings being developed at Connecticut’s own Eugene O'Neill Theater Center as part of the 2011 National Playwrights Conference.
The show is about a “virtual wonderland” where people can log in and play as their own avatar. Here, they have almost total anonymity, which allows everyone to indulge in their deepest desires. A young detective named Morris, played by Joy Ike, uncovers a disturbing place within the world, The Hideaway, where people indulge far too much. The rest of the show follows her interrogations and search through the world as she attempts to uncover and stop the people behind the coding. This play was the winner of the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and classifies itself as “both a serpentine crime drama and haunting sci-fi thriller.” In short, it's a tale of actions and consequences. Ike, in an interview with Theatre at Eastern, called it a show that would “make you sick to your stomach in the best way possible.”
The first notable thing about the production was the incredible acting. For a show with many unsettling moments, I found myself very drawn to the talented cast. Joy Ike particularly grabs attention as the gritty detective of the story, her highlight being the bone-chilling monologue she delivers as she walks down an industrial staircase. As she cried, debating what’s real and not real about her world, I was hooked on every word. Tyler Warren, as Woodnut, one of the investigators going virtually undercover, was poised in The Hideaway's Victorian-esque playing space, which made his collapse into darkness all the more of a shock.
Adam Rodowicz as Doyle, a teacher on the verge of collapse, was similarly striking in his moments of pure agony and frustration. His character had the most twists and turns for me and I found myself both disturbed by him and worried for him. Kane Waggoner and Millie Carlson as the duo of Sims and his virtual character Papa were unequivocally disturbing to watch, in the best way possible. The two are the puppet masters behind the terror in the virtual world and their subtle manipulation of others, as well as their openness to admitting their sicknesses, made me cry throughout the last ten minutes of the production. Emma Reilly played Iris, a 9-year old girl in the virtual world. Her ability to modulate and control her voice, as well as physicalize herself, to appear so young is extremely impressive. I felt totally immersed in her performance, which made her relationships with the other characters all the more difficult to watch.
Besides the cast, the production was benefited by incredible visuals. The lights, which were designed by professor Tim Golebiewski and assisted by student Sam Oravits, significantly aided in building the virtual world. When the scenes cut from the bright, Victorian virtual to the gritty, film-noir interrogations, the lights shifted as well. I particularly enjoyed the flickering of the overhead light in the interrogation room before the full fluorescent turned on. The room felt stark, clinical. The lighting in The Hideaway was so different. It felt very fantastical, especially since many of the lights were used to show the video game-like and virtual elements. Whereas the real world had very honest, realistic lighting, anytime we were in The Nether itself, the lights had brighter colors, stark reds and blues, more saturation, and harder focus.
The projections were designed by students Ash Fischer and Meghan Wrobel. On the set was a large rectangular panel in the center, where both projections and lighting were used to introduce new virtual characters. When lit properly, the audience could see right through the panel and watch characters approach, or put them behind a mask. Other times, the panel was used to alternate through the character selection process, with facial images being projected onto it. Not only was the character customization screen stunning, all the wallpaper was projected as well. Sometimes glitches would even play on the walls, as characters fought or things were revealed. The sound design (by Travis Houldcroft and assisted by Ethan Pervere) worked similarly. It would take us out of our immersion for a second, which usually would be a fault of the design, but in this case reminded the audience that the whole world wasn’t truly there, bringing us back to the message of the show: what’s real and what’s not.
The scenic design done pushed this even further. The multi-level set, which allowed actors to move into the upper catwalk above the audience, created an almost overwhelming amount of world to look at (much like a virtual playing space is never ending). Multiple layers and panels graced the set, with a stark, gray detective office on one side, and a Victorian house, complete with a large red chair, on the other. This was all helpful in creating the division of worlds and, in such a small theatre, allowing the actors as much world to move in as possible. This was particularly beneficial to the Shades, played by Xsyanni Jackson and Wesley Silva, who were able to interact freely with the audience, set, and characters. Although they didn’t speak, these characters could physically do so much in the space. This made sense as Shades are meant to represent someone who has totally crossed over into the virtual world, abandoning their real body. Their observation from higher levels on the set added to the eeriness.
Costumes and props, done by professor Anya Sokolovskaya and assisted by students Ashlyn Sminkey (Costumes) and Evan Carney (Props), really pushed the narrative as well. The Shades had avatar-like costumes, the most akin to the real virtual world. The costumes even played into gender roles in video games as well, Jackson’s costume being a bunny mask, fluffy sleeves, leather pants, a long wig, and heels, which although uncomfortable to realistically move in, is overtly similar to the customization options for female characters in games. Comparatively, Silva’s costume was that of a soldier in combat. Large black boots and camo gear adorned his masked figure, obviously referencing the expectations of a male avatar.
Most notable was how well costumes reflected Iris’ youth versus Papa’s disturbingly older age. Though sometimes hard to look at, obviously this was the point. Iris has a Victorian pale purple dress, akin to a babydoll, with a big green bow around the waist. This allowed her to later remove the bow, in one of the hardest scenes to watch, and remove the dress, revealing the matching Victorian underclothes. The attention to detail, from the lace, to the white Mary-Janes, was stunning. Papa, in contrast, wore a suit and mustache. Long plaid pants, a vest, and a long coat adorned him, making him appear much older. Woodnut’s costume was similarly fashioned, with an additional matching hat. In the real world, characters had modern clothes, again pushing the differences between the universes of the story.
Overall, The Nether did make me sick to my stomach. I was disturbed and shaken when I left the theater, and couldn’t help but think about the show for days after. However, this was not a bad thing. The incredible performances were unmatched by many I’ve seen at Eastern before, and the fantastic work done by students and professors made for a story I will never forget. It was impactful and hauntingly beautiful.