Real & virtual worlds collide in the chilling, mind-blowing The Nether

Hannah Levinson & David Storch. Set and lighting design by Patrick Lavender. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Tim Leyes.

 

Production warning: While nothing graphic whatsoever happens onstage, The Nether has violent and sexually explicit content, including rape, murder, suicide and pedophilia, that may be deeply disturbing to some. Please be advised.

Coal Mine Theatre joins forces with Studio 180 Theatre, opening its 5th season last night, taking us to a shocking virtual reality world with its Toronto premiere of Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, directed by Peter Pasyk. Part crime procedural, part sci-fi thriller, The Nether explores the dark side of human desire, asking us: Are pedophilia, rape and murder, committed with impunity in an online world, truly victimless? And should these online crimes be punishable in the offline world?

The Nether is the evolution of the Internet in not too distant future; an virtual online world that provides access to “realms” of education, work and fantasy role play on a level never seen before. In a world where trees, grass and plants—aspects of nature we take for granted—are rare and costly, The Nether provides access to startlingly realistic environments that engage all of the senses; and the chance to become anyone you want via an avatar persona. It is here that Sims (David Storch) has created The Hideaway, a stately, secluded Victorian home placed in a pastoral setting lush with trees and a garden. Presenting himself as Papa to his virtual guests and employees, he plays host to those who, like himself, have certain proclivities that would be considered heinously criminal in the “offline” world. The Hideaway is a pedophile playground, where adult guests may interact with, rape and murder children with complete impunity. After all, Sims argues, these aren’t “real” children, so no crime has been committed; and his realm provides a service in that it keeps pedophiles from realizing their desires in the real world as they satisfy their hunger online.

Nether law enforcement Detective Moss (Katherine Cullen) would disagree and has taken Sims in for interrogation. [Mini-spoiler alert] As part of the investigation, undercover agent Woodnut (Mark McGrinder) infiltrates The Hideaway as a guest, to witness first-hand the goings-on there. Woodnut spends a great deal of time with Iris (Hannah Levinson), a girl of about 12 and Papa’s favourite. Eerily life-like and possessing of an old soul, Iris is aware of her role as child victim; she is patient and encouraging with newbie Woodnut, who is bashful and hesitant to fully play out the game, assuring him that she resurrects after each murder.

Moss also questions Doyle (Robert Persichini), a high school science teacher and former guest at The Hideaway who claims to know nothing about Sims’ motives and plans, but whose troubled demeanour suggests that he’s hiding something. He does confess to Moss that he wants to “cross over”—leave the offline world behind and live out the rest of his life completely online. Referred to as “shades,” those who set out to do so must make arrangements for life support for their corporeal bodies in the real world—and Moss is alarmed at the prospect, warning Doyle that these supports aren’t as advertised.

What’s critical for Moss’s investigation is that the characters at The Hideaway are not computer programs or AI constructs—they are avatars with a person behind them. And while Sims insists that he fastidiously vets all participants to ensure adult-only entry, Moss believes that his realm is far from victimless.

Gripping, laser-focused work from the cast in this haunting tale of a fascinating and disturbing new world—all the more troubling as it’s not too far into the future. Cullen gives an edgy, driven performance as Moss; determined to get to the truth at nearly any cost, Moss also has her own demons to tame. Storch delivers a razor sharp, complex pair of characters: the cool, clever virtual entrepreneur Sims, and the playful, warm father figure Papa. Masterfully compartmentalizing his offline and online lives, Sims rationalizes his creation by positing that he keeps pedophiles off the streets, but appears to struggle with personal attachments of his own in The Hideaway.

Levinson is a precious, likable smarty pants as Iris; playful, curious, observant and empathetic, Iris begins to question her world, putting her position at risk. Persichini gives a deeply poignant performance as the troubled Doyle; a sharply intelligent and profoundly lonely and sad man, Doyle longs to be in a world where he is loved and feels a sense of belonging. Nicely layered work from McGrinder as the kind, conflicted Woodnut; entering The Hideaway to investigate, he finds himself strangely drawn to this world—and must come to grips with the personal feelings that emerge while in this undercover position.

The ensemble is nicely supported by compelling, atmospheric design elements, from Patrick Lavender’s startling, transporting set and lighting design, to Michelle Bohn’s mix of period and futuristic costumes, and Richard Feren’s spooky, game-like sound design.

It’s a lot to process—and raises important moral and ethical questions about the power of technology to transport, entertain and engage. Would a realm such as The Hideaway keep society safe in that rapists, murderers and pedophiles could enact their dark desires only online? Or would it serve as a dress rehearsal for the real thing or convert those who’ve never considered such atrocities? And if you believe that behaviour is shaped by thought, is there really such a thing as a victimless crime in any world?

The Nether continues at Coal Mine Theatre until November 4; get advanced tickets online—advance booking strongly recommended.

In the meantime, check out cast and crew interview videos on the Coal Mine website.

 

Advertisements

Fairy tale meets crime procedural meets romantic dramedy as music, hilarity ensue in the magical, imaginative The Adventures of Tom Shadow

Kevin Vidal, Mark Little, Christian Smith, Lisa Gilroy & Natalie Metcalfe—photo by Samantha Hurley

 

Theatre Lab’s ensemble of top Toronto comedy talent brings a revised version of their hit musical comedy The Adventures of Tom Shadow to the Factory Theatre Studio, directed by Peter Stevens, with music direction and accompaniment by Jordan Armstrong.

Created and performed by Lisa Gilroy, Mark Little, Natalie Metcalfe, Christian Smith and Kevin Vidal, The Adventures of Tom Shadow takes us on a multi-genre, super fun musical comedy ride—just the thing to relax you after a long, hard day.

Story time turns into a real-life adventure when fiercely determined cop Bev (Metcalfe) and sensitive, nerdish lit professor John’s (Little) kids Martin (Smith) and Angeline (Gilroy) disappear after they’ve been tucked in. What the distraught parents don’t know is the two kids have gone off on a hero’s journey with Tom Shadow (Vidal, think Peter Pan meets Willy Wonka) to his magical kingdom in the clouds.

Things go downhill for Bev and John, as the stress and public’s suspicion over their missing kids takes a toll. John joins a gang of skater kids called the Runaway Boys, led by John’s teen pal (Vidal). And Bev tries to get into the mind of a psychopath in hopes of finding a clue to where her kids are, turning to convicted cannibal/murderer Diane (Gilroy, as a female Hannibal Lector). Meanwhile, the police chief (Smith, of the wicked Jack Nicolson-esqe facial expressions) is tired of being labelled a loser, and assembles an angry mob of jealous neighbours and townspeople to arrest Bev and John!

Combining physical comedy with music and genre-bending themes, the cast kicks it at high speed, rolling out moment after moment of big-time LOLs.

Fairy tale meets crime procedural meets romantic dramedy as music and hilarity ensue in the magical, imaginative The Adventures of Tom Shadow.

The Adventures of Tom Shadow runs in the Factory Theatre Studio till October 22. Get your advance tickets online or by phone at 416.504.9971, or in-person at 125 Bathurst Street (at Adelaide).

Compelling storytelling in the riveting, edgy, darkly funny Slip

Clockwise, from top: Alex Paxton-Beesley, Daniel Pagett, Mikaela Dyke & Anders Yates—photo by Alec Toller

Circlesnake Productions remounts its production of Slip, collectively written by the ensemble and directed by Alec Toller—opening in the Tarragon Theatre Workspace last night.

Walking into what appears to be a crime scene—some of us walking through it to get to the bank of seats opposite the entrance—we become immersed in Jane’s (Mikaela Dyke) apartment. Pieces torn out of books, scraps of paper, post-its litter the floor and cover the walls; and there’s a banner with a strange interlocking symbol (set by Bronwen Lily, lighting by Wesley McKenzie). Jane lies dead in the middle of the floor, red hood pulled up covering her face.

Detective Lynne (Alex Paxton-Beesley) and her partner Mark (Daniel Pagett) assess the scene as they await the arrival of medical examiner Blake (Anders Yates). Is it murder or suicide? Perfectly matched, they work at piecing together a story for this incident, playfully one-upping each other in a private, quick-paced game as each comes up with theories and trajectories.

As the detectives sift through photographs and other evidence found on the scene, we see pieces of Jane’s story played out in flashback—inspired by a photo Lynne finds on a shelf: a relationship with a young black woman, one of two people witnesses saw entering and exiting the apartment. Marina (Nicole Stamp) is Jane’s ex-girlfriend, still on friendly terms and concerned about Jane’s welfare. And we learn that the young ginger-haired man seen in the vicinity turns out to be Chris (Yates), Jane’s brother.

Meanwhile, Lynne is a subject of particular interest in a tribunal investigating an incident where she and Mark pursued a perp into a darkened alley and shots were fired. And she’s in the dog house with their boss Passader (Stamp), who expects great things from her. Brilliant and known for her remarkable instincts, Lynne has been anxious and off her game lately. And it’s not just because of the tribunal—she’s been forgetting, losing her grip on her memory and sense of time. And the investigation into Jane’s death becomes personal—maybe too personal.

Outstanding work from the cast in this tale where crime procedural meets psychological thriller meets dark comedy. Paxton-Beesley and Pagett have amazing chemistry as the two detectives; dedicated and good at their jobs, Lynne and Mark are well-matched, riffing off ideas and theories with a playful, mercurial banter and a good-natured sense of competition. Beneath the professional, hard shell exteriors are two damaged souls. Paxton-Beesley (no stranger to playing detective—Murdoch Mysteries fans will recognize her as Murdoch’s childhood friend turned private detective Winifred “Freddie” Pink) gives a compelling, heartbreaking performance of Lynne’s journey; Jane’s story hits close to home—and the dawning realization of what will it mean for a beloved career she’s dedicated her life to. And Pagett reveals the softer, conflicted side of Mark; a man struggling with alcohol and having a ‘normal’ life when he goes home from the job. Supportive and loyal to Lynne, Mark can’t help but be suspicious and concerned about her recent erratic behaviour.

IMG_6826
Mikaela Dyke & Nicole Stamp—photo by Alec Toller

Dyke gives a moving performance as Jane; deeply troubled, fragile and lost, Jane reaches out in an attempt to reconnect with ex Marina, but can’t bring herself to tell her what’s wrong—revealing and mysterious at the same time. Her perceptions of family are in stark contrast with that of her brother; whose version of the story is true? Stamp shows some great range as the hard-ass, domineering Passader, who has big plans for Lynne and demands she doesn’t screw it up; and the loving, kind Marina who longs to be there for Jane, but whose care and compassion can only go so far. Yates is hilarious as the wisecracking ME Blake, who doesn’t particularly enjoy his job, but game for the quick-paced, sharp-witted exchanges with Lynne and Mark. And he brings an edge of pragmatism and deep-seated pain to Jane’s brother Chris.

The immersive staging puts the audience on either side of Jane’s apartment, giving us a fly-on-the-wall’s-eye view of the proceedings. Photographs and writings become jumping off points for flashbacks, revealing new pieces of the puzzle. Memory and story weave in and out—and stories intersect and combine to a stunning and heart-wrenching revelation.

Compelling storytelling in the riveting, edgy, darkly funny Slip.

 Slip runs in the Tarragon Workspace till April 2; advance tickets available online—strongly recommended as it’s an intimate space with limited seating.

In the meantime, check out the interview with director Alec Toller on Stageworthy Podcast with host Phil Rickaby.