I caught the last performance of The Nether on Friday afternoon, and when I sat down in the front row I realized it might be the last show I ever got to see at Cornell. Over the past four years I’ve spent hours in the Black Box Theatre rehearsing, directing and watching my peers put on wonderful performances. I am incredibly grateful, and this was a fitting, wistful goodbye.
The Nether, written by Jennifer Haley, depicts a grim future where people can only experience the sensations of the natural world in the Nether, previously known as the Internet. In this virtual wonderland exists a simulacrum, the Hideaway, a poisoned Victorian Eden created by a man who calls himself Papa. Pedophiles are invited to indulge their darkest desires here in the safety of their own imaginations.
The play opens with Sims (Joey Welsh ’21) sitting by himself in an interrogation room. Detective Morris (Ankita Bhattacharjee ’22) throws a series of charges at him but he remains impossible to penetrate — that is, until she threatens to take away his login to the Nether. He submits to Morris, which prompts the question, can virtual experiences become so important that it takes over one’s “real” life?
Another man brought in for questioning seems to think so. Doyle (Andrew Dettmer ‘22), a loyal visitor of the Hideaway has been pondering the possibility of a crossover. His physical body will be chained to a life support system, but his mind will roam free in the Nether. While Sims’ defense for the Hideaway often appears rationalist, Doyle sounds like a hopeless romantic, offering a more emotional standpoint when examining the matter. He argues, “this communication — the experience of each other — is the root of consciousness.” Dettmer is perfect in the role of this 65-year-old science teacher; he looks nerdy, stressed out and beaten up with his thick glasses and oversized sweater, but an aching tenderness seeps through his voice, making me tremble at how much I empathize with his yearnings.
And then it’s time to venture out of the interrogation room into the Hideaway. With an incredible lighting shift, the stage is transformed into an otherworldly digital escape, where the birds sing and the flowers blossom in spring. We are greeted by Iris (Abbey Crowley ’22), a nine-year-old girl, or the image of one. She is special; her naïve appearance and action is unmatched with the sobering clarity in her inquiries. Papa seems to favor her of all the children. Someone else has also taken a liking to her immediately — Mr. Woodnut (Ian Capell ’20), a well-mannered, perhaps reserved, new guest to the Hideaway. He brings her flowers and engages in conversations with her, deviating from the designed course of the realm. Eventually Papa notices the unusual connection the two have been building and demands Iris to have Woodnut “try the axe,” another generous offering of the Hideaway. In the post-show talkback, Welsh interpreted the design as a “desensitization” process, and Dettmer added that there was a line from his character that read “murdering children doesn’t make you detached, but complicit.” Crowley delivers a stellar performance in a hard role. She balances the seductive charm and the painfully simple desires — to be loved, to be special — in this complex character so well that she reminds me of Nabokov’s Lolita at times. Her chemistry with both Welsh and Capell is palpable and beautiful to see.
Director Bryan Hagelin ’20 sure does magic with the minimum. The stage becomes gradually populated with props as the plot builds to a shocking revelation, then in a scene shift everything is taken away and we return to the cold, emotionless interrogation room. Without showing explicit violence or sexual behaviors on stage, Hagelin makes the brilliant decision to have Iris reenacting the scenes in the background as Morris reads chilling confessions from the two men. And composer Jacob Nannapaneni ’22 gives a captivating score that encapsulates the complex emotions of the store.
My only issue with the production, really, was the melodramatic portrayal of Detective Morris; I’ve always imagined her as someone who battles her inner struggles while trying extremely hard to maintain the calm, unbiased voice of justice. It saddens me to see how this over-the-top performance risks taking away from the nuance of the character.
When the curtain falls, we have to walk away from the Nether with questions instead of answers. The notions of love and desire are taken to uncharted territories, if not redefined altogether. Haley’s tragic tale feels strangely timely now. When the world, or at the very least the world as we know it, ends, where do we go to seek basic human needs? How do we connect with each other emotionally, if at all? How can nature, even the mere image of it, help calm our anxiety about the collapsing reality?
The Nether, as Haley defines it in the playwright’s note, is “a dimension of Evil or Imagination” or simply, “Demon world.” Yet in her imagined demon world, love still exists in its purest form, regardless of gender, age, appearance and such. Perhaps we can find consolation in knowing this.
Ruby Que is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.