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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The profound cruelty & kindness of humanity in Coal Mine’s darkly funny, deeply affecting Category E

Diana Bentley, Robert Persichini & Vivien Endicott-Douglas. Set and costume design by Anna Treusch. Lighting design by Gabriel Cropley. Photo by Tim Leyes.

 

Coal Mine Theatre closes its 4th season with the Toronto premiere of Belinda Cornish’s horror comedy Category E, directed by Rae Ellen Bodie—opening last night to a sold out house at their home on 1454 Danforth Ave.

The pre-show soundtrack of retro commercials playing in the lobby (sound design by Keith Thomas) is a kitschy prelude to the dark comedic terror that awaits inside, where we are transported into an eerily familiar futuristic dystopia—familiar because, like the most recent TV incarnation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the future is closer than you think.

Once in the theatre space, the audience sits on either side of a large cage that contains two cots, a wheel chair and a small bookcase (set and costume design by Anna Treusch); the ceiling of the cage is a large light box (lighting design by Gabriel Cropley), and there are large lighting fixtures outside in the hallway, as well as two security cameras mounted to the walls. Set in a testing facility, Category E takes the human trial stage of product testing to the extreme; the human subjects are stripped of identity and even gender—each bearing a number on their beige scrubs and becoming an “it”—and treated with the cold clinical detachment that would be afforded a lab rabbit.

It is here that the chipper and nervous new kid Millet (Vivien Endicott-Douglas) arrives, joining veteran lab subject Corcoran (Robert Persichini), who uses the wheel chair, and Filigree (Diana Bentley), who is either asleep or passed out. The tension and confusion are turned on immediately, as there are now three people occupying this cage and only two cots; this makes for an intense introduction between Millet and Filigree when Filigree wakes up. Not to mention the condition of the cage’s two original occupants, both filthy and looking in ill health—a stark contrast to the newcomer, who although in desperate need of a shower, is wearing clean scrubs and in perfect health. Corcoran wears an eye patch over one eye and his good eye is angry and red, and the dressing on his forearm should have been changed ages ago; he passes the time with a 17-year-old crossword puzzle. Filigree is pale and gaunt, and keeps scratching her lower back against the chair railing on the wall; her hobby is drawing disturbing portraits in crayon.

Meals, delivered in bowls labelled with subjects’ numbers, are signalled by a light and retrieved at one end of the narrow hallway outside the cage; a female version of HAL 9000 summons subjects by number to testing and shower time, accessed at the other end of the hallway. Standing on the bookcase to peer into the vent, Millet discovers the cage next door; like theirs, it also houses three subjects, but they cannot hear her. There are a lot of questions about what’s going on—and, like Millet, we learn the rules of this strange new world as we go.

There are vague references to “passing the eye” (or is it “I”?), which also gives this world a Handmaid’s Tale vibe, and brief moments of revelation—it seems Corcoran is a former scientist and Millet failed the test. And it appears that those who fail this test, or who have committed some kind of crime or corporate sin, are now considered as subhuman and become subjects in this testing facility. That is, with the exception of Filigree, whose odd, primal behaviour comes from the fact that she was born and raised in the facility, without parental nurturing or guidance (Corcoran has taken on this role, for how long is unclear). We get fleeting glimpses into the testing that they’re subjected to—and the lack of clear answers makes the mystery of this place all the more unsettling. Scene changes are accompanied by sexy voice-over ads, touting the various beauty and fragrances manufactured by the unseen corporation; mentions of side effects call us back to the cage.

Compelling, nuanced work from the cast in this harrowing three-hander, where moments of dark comedy barely take the edge off. Endicott-Douglas is a puckish, clever bundle of energy as Millet; the mercurial, chatty new kid in this space, Millet is endearingly awkward, with a can-do attitude and strong desire to fit in and make a contribution. Persichini’s performance as Corcoran goes deep into the calming, Zen-like quiet of a man of great intellect who at first sight appears merely world-weary and taciturn. Corcoran’s acts of kindness bring the much needed balm of tenderness to an otherwise brutal environment; and there’s an underlying sense of atonement in a struggle for redemption. Bentley is a delightfully quirky, at times menacing, wild child as Filigree; an untamed innocent, she operates on instinct, socialized under the care of Corcoran—and there’s a lovely, playful dynamic between them, especially when Corcoran acquiesces to Filigree’s requests tell them a story. What is the nature of that irritation on Filigree’s back? And why does Corcoran keep insisting on trading meals with Millet?

To see what I have seen! Category E is caress on the cheek and a kick in the gut. It is also a stark reminder that how we test product innovation in the name of consumer satisfaction is a choice. Cruelty and kindness are choices. If you’re either pro- or ambivalent toward animal testing, I think this play might just change your mind. A quote from St. Francis of Assisi, included in the program notes, is especially apt here: “If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”

The profound cruelty and kindness of humanity in Coal Mine’s darkly funny, deeply affecting production of the dystopic macabredy Category E.

Category E continues at Coal Mine Theatre until April 29; get advanced tickets online—advance booking strongly recommended.

The power of hope & community to build a dream in the sharply funny, poignant, uplifting Superior Donuts

Photo by Shaun Benson: Robert Persichini and Nabil Rajo in Superior Donuts

Coal Mine Theatre continues its 2016-17 season with the Canadian premiere of Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts, directed by Ted Dykstra, and opening last night to a packed house and a standing ovation at its home at 1454 Danforth Ave., Toronto.

When we first see Superior Donuts, the shop appears to have been abandoned. The shelves are empty, there’s litter strewn across the counter and floor, chairs and stools overturned, and the word “Pussy” has been spray painted in neon orange on the chalkboard green wall. As the play opens, though, we learn it’s been vandalized; and Max (Alex Poch-Goldin), who owns the neighbouring DVD store, is giving his account to police officers Randy Osteen (Darla Biccum) and James Bailey (Michael Blake) after calling it in. We also learn from Max that Superior Donuts owner Arthur (Robert Persichini) has been absent lately, and hasn’t opened the shop in a couple of days, as he mourns the loss of his ex-wife.

Arthur arrives as Max is finishing up with the police, already slow moving and numb as he takes in the damage, eventually realizing he’s missed his coffee delivery, so has no coffee to offer anyone. Left alone to tidy up, he’s roused by an insistent and persistent knock on the locked door; a kid responding to his help wanted notice. Arthur reluctantly opens the door to Franco (Nabil Rajo), a fast-talking young man with seemingly boundless energy; and after an unusual and certainly creative job interview, Franco is hired. Meanwhile, Franco has troubles of his own; bookie Luther (Ryan Hollyman) and his muscle Kevin (Jon Lachlan Stewart) pay him a visit after Kevin sees him working at the shop. Franco has a large gambling debt, and Luther is under extreme pressure from the powers that be—he wants his money now and the clock is running out for Franco.

Superior Donuts is the last of a dying breed of beloved mom and pop stores in an increasingly gentrified neighbourhood, where Starbucks and Whole Foods are popping up and challenging businesses that have been fixtures for years. It’s also an island of misfit toys, with its own cast of quirky, multicultural characters. There’s local regular Lady (Diana Leblanc), a struggling alcoholic with a love of red lipstick; and the outspoken Russian Max, who has big plans for expanding his DVD shop into an electronics empire and wants to buy the donut shop so he can fulfill his dream—these two get free coffee and donuts. We also get to know the two cops: Randy comes from a sports-loving family full of  brothers and cops, and has an eye for Arthur; and James and his wife are Star Trek fans who enjoy cosplay at fan conventions. And, while he’s largely silent with the others, Arthur speaks to us throughout in wistful, heartfelt and nostalgic monologues—personal history anecdotes filled with notes of regret.

Franco is full of ideas for improvement for Superior Donuts, from healthier menu choices to poetry and reading events. He also has ideas for improving Arthur, and sets out to be both style consultant and matchmaker. And he’s just finished writing the great American novel, written long-hand on notebooks and loose leaf over the course of seven years, an opus bound with a string. The kid is full of hope—something that Arthur has long been lacking—and as the relationship between Arthur and Franco grows, Franco’s enthusiasm becomes contagious and ideas start brewing in Arthur’s head about who they can talk to about publishing Franco’s book. He even decides to do something about Randy. Then, his despair, doubt and pessimism get the better of him—and Arthur lashes out at Franco’s youthful industry and optimism.

But when something happens to Franco, Arthur is spurred to action. Confronting Luther and Kevin, with the help of Max and his young relative Kiril (Paul Dods), Superior Donuts becomes the ground for one last fight.

Outstanding work from the cast; each a masterful storyteller as he/she speaks for his/her character. Persichini gives a profoundly moving performance as Arthur, a gentle giant who fled to Canada to evade the draft, returning to take over the family business established by his father the year he was born. Now deeply saddened by the passing of his ex-wife Magda and full of guilt at having lost touch with his daughter Joanie, his life is full of disappointment and regret, leaving him in hopelessness and despair—until Franco enters his life. Rajo is a delightful spark plug as Franco; a mercurial, smart and irreverent young man, there’s more to him than the hip, smart-ass kid he presents. A thoughtful, generous soul, his sense of hope is put to the test. Great chemistry, banter and candor in the Arthur/Franco two-handers.

Leblanc gives a lovely performance as the fragile, bird-like Lady; and the mutual love and care that Lady and Arthur have for each other are evident in some beautifully tender moments between them. Poch-Goldin is hilariously engaging as the blunt Max; he’s a go big or go home kind of guy who says what he thinks—and fiercely loyal. Biccum and Blake make a great pair as the police officer partners Randy and James. Biccum gives Randy some nice, gentle layers beneath the tomboy cop exterior; longing for something beyond her family legacy of sports and being on the job, she likes Arthur a lot but is too shy to go for it. And Blake brings an officer and a gentleman vibe to James; a good sport about the teasing from his friends and colleagues about his love of Star Trek, he’s a genuinely good man, out to serve and protect.

Hollyman brings a great edge of desperation and ruthlessness to Luther; Stewart’s Kevin is classic bad boy from the hood; and Dods is impressive as the ripped Kiril, a newly arrived immigrant with little English and a sweet soul under those abundant muscles.

The power of hope and community to build a dream in the sharply funny, poignant, uplifting Superior Donuts.

Superior Donuts continues to February 26; drop by the Coal Mine Theatre website for ticket info or purchase tickets directly online. Book in advance for this one folks—it’s an incredible show and an intimate venue with general seating. Please note the 7:30pm curtain time for evening performances; box office opens at 6:45pm.

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