By Beki Pineda
THE NETHER. Written by Jennifer Haley; directed by Rachel Bouchard. Produced by Benchmark Theatre (performed at Buntport Theater, 717 Lipan St., Denver) through April 23. Tickets available at www.benchmarktheatre.com.
First of all, congratulations to the newly formed (and promising) Benchmark Theatre company for having both the courage to tackle starting a new company in this uncertain economic climate and, secondly, for taking on this controversial and densely rich script as their first project. Co-founders Rachel Bouchard and Haley Johnson are no strangers to Denver theatergoers, and know the commitment an undertaking of this scope entails. They have surrounded themselves with theater friends and colleagues to collaborate on creating intellectually stimulating theatrical experiences for themselves and their audiences. If this first production is any indication of the quality of forthcoming work, Denver will be culturally richer for their effort.
The Nether is what the Internet could become—a place where anyone with the right technical skills could create a virtual world to cater to any taste, no matter how exotic or perverse. Sims (Marc Stith) has the skills and the need to create a virtual world that allows him to behave in a way that would be unacceptable in the real world. The Nether is also a corporation that keeps an eye on its clients. As a result, Morris (Haley Johnson) is an Internet detective who has discovered Sims’s realm called The Hideaway. Both Sims and one of his most faithful clients, Doyle (Jim Hunt), are called in to explain what goes on in The Hideaway. In a series of scenes that move smoothly from virtual to real, from past to present, we discover the origins of, the reasons for, and the consequences of becoming a client of The Hideaway.
The ethical dilemma develops around the question, “Is it possible to break the law in a virtual world?” Let’s say a person has a penchant for a certain type of crime—say shoplifting. He then creates a netherworld where the excitement and adrenaline rush of shoplifting with the possibility of exposure are created in order to deter the client shoplifter from actually doing it in the real world. Would this ultimately decrease the amount of shoplifting done in the real world, or the road rage or domestic abuse? Is anyone actually being hurt if you drive your car into someone else or beat your wife in a virtual world? No one dies and no one gets bruises, right? But what if your secret sin was even more shameful. Say it involved little girls.
This is the puzzle laid before Benchmark’s audiences. You are warned before entering THE NETHER that it is for mature audiences—for people who are serious about the lessons that can be learned from one evening in the theater.
The cast and technical team bring this tantalizing story to life in a way that utilizes the technology that created the dilemma. The audience is warned about the dangers of “logging on” beforehand; virtual characters are introduced as we watch them log on and become corporeal. Some characters move easily between both worlds; others have difficulty with it. But the cast is convincing in both realms. Haley Johnson is the detective relentlessly determined to unveil what she perceives as an unlawful use of the Nether. Marc Stith plays Sims, the creator of this realm and a master manipulator. He has a strong point of view in defending his realm. Cameron Varner plays Woodnut, a new client of The Hideaway who is introduced to the services of the realm and through whom the audience is enlightened. Jim Hunt is Doyle, who has sacrificed his real life to stay in the virtual world where he is loved.
The find of this cast is Ella Madison, a young actress who is mature beyond her years and has a golden future in front of her, should she pursue theater as a career. Her calm, soothing presence lends a normalcy to a situation decidedly beyond normal. She is charming and childlike. Then, in the blink of an eye, she enters an adult world that should be incomprehensible to her. She makes it seem ordinary, almost nonchalant, but as an acting task it’s incredible.
The dark (real world) and light (virtual world) designed by Christopher Waller and built by Jeff Jesmer set the tone for both the menacing interrogations and harsh reality of the real world and the glistening impossibility of the virtual. The lighting design by Stevie Caldarola controls our attention and keeps the audience focused. Ann Piano’s costumes—both Victorian and modernistic—are authentic and appropriate. A good job by everyone involved.
WOW factor: 9