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.

 

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Love, sacrifice & the heartbeat of time in the delightful, poignant Sisters

Laura Condlln & Nicole Power. Set design by Michelle Tracey. Costume design by Erika Connor. Lighting design by Kimberley Purtell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper opened its striking world premiere of Rosamund Small’s delightful, poignant Sisters—a story of love, family, sacrifices and the march of time—to an enthusiastic full house last night. Inspired by Edith Wharton’s novella Bunner Sisters and directed by Peter Pasyk, Sisters is running in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre.

It’s the turn of the century in New York City, and sisters Ann (Laura Condlln) and Evelina (Nicole Power) live quiet, regular lives, working and living in a small shop, selling notions and jams, and providing sewing services. Both are single at an age that would label them as spinsters; and their small, humdrum workaday lives get a spark of excitement when Ann buys a clock for Evelina’s birthday—and both become enamoured with the quiet, charming clockmaker Ramy (Kevin Bundy). Adding to the fun is their observant friend and neighbour, Mrs. Mellins (Karen Robinson), a widowed dressmaker who lives upstairs.

Torn between her feelings for Ramy and love for her sister, Ann steps aside to make room for a match between Ramy and Evelina—a decision made all the more heart-wrenching when Ramy takes a job in St. Louis, taking his new wife with him and leaving Ann to run the shop alone. Dependant on return customers and referrals from more privileged ladies—like the affable Lady with the Puffy Sleeves (Ellora Patnaik) and the wealthy, entitled Customer (Raquel Duffy)—Ann and Mrs. Mellins are also facing a new wave of industrialization; one in which much of the textile industry will be mechanized, with factories churning out large amounts of pre-made, less expensive off-the-rack goods. Dealing with the separation as best as she can, when Evelina’s letters stop coming and her letters come back return-to-sender, Ann sets on a search for Evelina’s whereabouts; and with the help of Mrs. Mellins, gathers some troubling information about Ramy in the process.

sisters-2
Karen Robinson, Laura Condlln & Nicole Power. Set design by Michelle Tracey. Costume design by Erika Connor. Lighting design by Kimberley Purtell. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Lovely work from the cast in this tale of everyday heroism and perseverance in the face of longing, heartbreak and loyalty. Condlln is heartbreaking and inspiring as the older sister Ann; practical and better with the accounts than she is with the creative side of the business, Ann puts her own desire for romance aside to make her sister happy. Power (who Kim’s Convenience fans will recognize as Jung’s quirky boss Shannon) is a day-dreamy spitfire as younger sister Evelina; bored and skeptical that things will get better, Evelina is more pessimistic than her sister—but is able to see colours in music and match the perfect accessories to a dress. Robinson (who Schitt’s Creek fans will recognize as Ronnie Lee) is a treat as Mrs. Mellins, performing with gusto and impeccable comic timing; while she has a morbid fascination in the seedier side of the city, Mrs. Mellins’ penny dreadful notions of life outside the shop make way for sage advice and motherly watchfulness over the sisters. And Bundy seduces as the reserved, gallant German clockmaker; shy, sickly and precise, Ramy is a mystery man of changeable temperament—which perhaps makes him all the more attractive.

The perspectival, display case-like set with a raked floor (Michelle Tracey), atmospheric lighting (Kimberly Purtell), stunning period costumes (Erika Connor) and haunting music box music (Richard Feren) make for an aesthetically pleasing, finely honed view of this world.

Sisters reminds us of the precarity of life for working women; reliant on men and those who are better off in general to make something of their lives. And of the saving grace of love, hope, faith and determination—with a little help from family and friends.

Sisters continues at the Young Centre until September 16. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Nasty family schemes go to hell in Coal Mine Theatre’s primal, raw & darkly funny Killer Joe

Coal Mine Theatre presents KILLER JOE 800
Matthew Edison (standing). Seated (l to r): Paul Fauteux, Madison Walsh, Vivien Endicott-Douglas & Matthew Gouveia – photo by Matt Campagna

There’s a mini-Lettsapalooza going on in Toronto right now – and last night, I stopped by Coal Mine Theatre to see their production of Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe, directed by Peter Pasyk.

Chris Smith (Matthew Gouveia) is in big trouble. In deep with drug debts, he owes a mean son of a bitch named Digger $6,000. Chris doesn’t have $6,000. But he has a plan. A crazy-ass plan in which he enlists the aid of his dad Ansel (Paul Fauteux) to hire dirty Dallas P.D. detective Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew Edison) to knock off his no-good, alcoholic mother and get the insurance money. Chris and Ansel aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed – and decidedly not discrete – and it’s not long before Chris’s young stepmother Sharla (Madison Walsh) and kid sister Dottie (Vivien Endicott-Douglas), who’s listed as their mother’s beneficiary, are in on the plan. And because they don’t have the $25,000 they need to pay Killer Joe for his services, they need to come up with a retainer to keep him on board – and Chris and Ansel must decide what they’re willing to sacrifice to that end. Scheme on top of scheme unravels, each one worse than the one before it, and the Smith family displays some Olympic-level dumbassery, seasoned with sex, violence and some evil dark humour. And, of course, things go horribly, horribly wrong. Think George F. Walker meets Fargo in a Texas trailer park.

Killer Joe has a damn fine cast. The stakes are crazy high and the desperation is turned up to 11 with the knob broke off – and these actors really give ‘er. As Chris, Gouveia turns up the heat and pace with practically every scene he’s in, and he’s found the complexity of a man who’s deeply protective of his loved ones, but incredibly careless about putting them in harm’s way. You can see Chris’s mind turning like a hamster wheel, churning out worse idea after bad idea; this may be the first time in his lazy-ass, drug-addled life that he’s ever exhibited some ambition and he’s in it 110% – until second, and even third, thoughts start seeping in, that is. Walsh gives Sharla a saucy, manipulative edge; ruthless and focused in her way, Sharla’s got the chops for sexing her way to what she wants, but lacks the brains to think things through. Fauteux’s Ansel is a hilarious combination of clueless and cowardly; easily distracted by the TV and dumb enough to go along with Chris’s plan for “easy money,” Ansel is deluded in thinking he’s the true head of the household and truly baffled when things go south. Endicott-Douglas brings a spacey, child-like quality to the wide-eyed, Bruce Lee Kung Fu fan Dottie; likely brain-damaged from maternal abuse when she was an infant, she moves through the world at a dreamy, sleep-walking pace – and talks when she sleep walks, comprehending more than others think. Edison is chilling as Killer Joe; a tall, dark and handsome southern gentleman with a deep, gravelly voice and eyes that pierce, killing is commerce to Joe, and human lives are bought and sold with a civil, verbal contract. He’s a stone cold killer and merciless professional – and definitely not a man you want to cross.

With shouts to set/lighting designer Patrick Lavender, costume designer Jenna McCutchen and sound designer Christopher Stanton for their work on creating this filthy, seedy, trailer trash world. You can almost feel the grime on that linoleum and smell the sweat on Ansel’s greasy undershirt. The pre-show thunder is particularly ominous – starting out faint and far away, then getting louder and closer when the action starts. And, as for the ending, you’ll never hear Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” the same way again.

Nasty family schemes go to hell in Coal Mine Theatre’s primal, raw and darkly funny Killer Joe.

Killer Joe continues at Coal Mine Theatre until Apr 24. It’s an intimate venue and a popular show, so book ahead to avoid disappointment. Please note the 7:30 p.m. start time; the play runs 90 minutes with no intermission and no latecomers will be admitted. The box office opens at 6:45 p.m. and takes cash only at the door.

If you haven’t been out to Coal Mine Theatre for a while, also note that they’ve moved further east on Danforth from their original location; still conveniently located near a Magic Oven and now with their own storefront space (and washroom), it’s at 1454 Danforth Ave, between Greenwood and Coxwell.

And, speaking of Lettsapalooza: Also running in Toronto right now is Alumnae Theatre Company’s production of Letts’ August: Osage County (till Apr 23). You can check out the cowbell post for that show here.