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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Identity, community & calling shenanigans on BS in the raw, real, nostalgic Situational Anarchy

 Graham Isador in Situational Anarchy

 

Pressgang Theatre joins forces with Pandemic Theatre to present Graham Isador’s one-man work of creative non-fiction Situational Anarchy, direction/dramaturgy by Tom Arthur Davis and Jivesh Parasram, and opening last night at Stop Drop N Roll.

Autobiographical, with an altered timeline and an amalgamation of several bands that were seminal in Isador’s life, Situational Anarchy is part self-discovery, part confession, and part ‘fuck you’ to betrayal and bullshit.

From the thoughtful, curious 11-year-old whose mind is blown when his mum gets real about his grade 6 music performance, to the awkward, large and bullied kid stumbling onto puberty, Graham is searching for meaning and desperate to belong. Try as he may, he can’t seem to find his place and almost checks out—then he discovers the punk band Against Me and its lead singer Laura Jane Grace, who later transitioned from male to female. Beyond the music, the social activism and humanity of this world resonate strongly.

His joy at discovering the music and the message increases when he finds community in the band’s online chatroom—and the cool, fun, smart Mouse, who lives in LA and steals his heart. Things fall apart when he gets caught up in Mouse’s unhealthy body image lifestyle and Against Me signs with Warner Music—which he views as a sell-out, as Warner also owns CNN—and he loses that online community and Mouse. Things come to a violent head when he drops by a local punk bar. It’s definitely not the community he knows and loves. Drafting a letter to Laura Jane Grace throughout, his correspondence serves as a framework for his story. And he’s calling bullshit on her. Years later, he takes a job interviewing her. So much to say.

Staged with multiple microphones, Situational Anarchy is a punk rock solo theatre piece. Isador’s performance is genuine, raw and personal, revealing a dark, edgy sense of humour and a profound longing to connect and belong. Weaving stories of coming of age, body image, homophobia, music and activism, he opens and closes his heart and mind to us in a funny and heart-breaking, at times violent, misfit’s journey of storytelling—reminding us of the power of music and message to inspire and unite.

With shouts to the design/running team: Ron Kelly (sound), Laura Warren (lighting/projection) and Heather Bellingham (stage manager).

Identity, community and calling shenanigans on bullshit in the raw, real, nostalgic Situational Anarchy.

Situational Anarchy continues at Stop Drop N Roll (300 College St., Toronto—above Rancho Relaxo) until June 3. Tickets at the door are Pay What You Want; advance tickets available online for $15. Heads-up: Seating very limited; only 25 seats per night.

All proceeds from the show (after expenses) will be donated to Trans Lifeline [US: (877) 565-8860 Canada: (877) 330-6366] and Gender is Over.

The closing performance will be followed by a set from Stuck Out Here.

Memory, loss & insight—true stories of living with mental illness in the funny, poignant Stories Like Crazy double bill

After launching Stories Like Crazy with their inaugural podcast at the beginning of Mental Health Week, Adrianna Prosser and Lori Lane Murphy finished off the week with two real-life solo shows that “stomp on stigma and set fire to adult colouring books”: Lane Murphy’s Upside Down Dad and Prosser’s Everything but the Cat. The double bill ran for two nights this past weekend at Red Sandcastle Theatre, with a portion of the ticket sales going to CMHA’s #GetLoud campaign.

Singer songwriter, and member of the Cheap Wine Collective (and Adrianna’s brother), Luke Prosser opened the two evenings with an acoustic set of fiercely passionate, introspective indie originals and a few covers, including an awesome version of “Folsom Prison Blues.” Wrap your ears around his evocative, raspy blues-infused sound on Soundcloud.

Upside Down Dad (directed by Christopher Lane). Part memoir, part homage, Lane Murphy reminisces about growing up in the 70s with Warner Brothers cartoons, navigating teenage milestones and living with a clinically depressed dad who was by all appearances a happy, fun guy. Childhood memories of being goofy and putting on cartoon voices in an attempt to bring her father out of bouts of profound sadness turn into more urgent and impactful moments in adulthood, where she continued to act as caregiver, driving him to treatment appointments and then being by his bedside when he was dying from leukemia.

Running parallel to her experience of her father’s mental illness is the growing realization of her own—from following her dad’s early example of self-medicating with alcohol to her own personal turning point, supported by him to find a healthier way to deal. And her support of his journey adds new insight to her own.

A genuine and engaging storyteller, Lane Murphy takes us from moments of laughter to tears—and some wacky, bizarre moments—as she chronicles her kindred spirit relationship with her dad. And her story highlights how important conversation is to insight, acceptance and healing—denying or ignoring the problem won’t make it go away.

Everything but the Cat (directed by Stephanie Ouaknine). A personal exploration of loss and grief, Prosser tells the story of losing her younger brother Andrew to suicide and her already shaky relationship with her boyfriend on the same day. Profound grief is peppered with second guesses and guilt, and coupled with gut-wrenching abandonment as her Peter Pan boyfriend, who already has one foot out the door, decides he can’t deal with this, or any, level of commitment.

A multi-media solo show that incorporates projected images (original projections by Ouaknine, with additional projections by Jason Martorino), Everything but the Cat includes shadow acting and voice-over work by Maksym Barnett-Kemper Shkvorets, Brad Emes, Hannah Barnett-Kemper Shkvorets, Erik Buchanan, Andrew Hodwitz, Scott Emerson Moyle, Devin Upham, Eden Bachelder, Stephanie Ouaknine, Daniel Legault, Niles Anthony, Gaj Mariathasan, Tammy Everett, AJ LaFlamme, Jason Martorino, Val Adriaanse, Jordi Hepburn and Phil Rickaby. Bringing moments of the story to life in creative and innovative ways—from learning the news of her brother from her dad, to grief-stricken/-propelled experiences of throwing herself into the club and dating scene—the projected images and lit areas evoke time, place and, most importantly, emotional state.

Infusing her story with edgy comedy and sharply pointed observation, Prosser gives a brave, bold, deeply vulnerable and ultimately entertaining performance that not only takes us along, but inside, her journey.

Memory, loss and insight—true stories of living with mental illness in the funny, poignant Stories Like Crazy double bill.

Stories Like Crazy’s evening of solo shows closed last night, but you can hear more true stories about mental health and living with mental illness—opening conversation and busting stigma—on the Stories Like Crazy podcast, hosted by Prosser and Lane Murphy. You can also keep up with Stories Like Crazy on Twitter.

Compelling, unflinching & charming storytelling in deeply poignant & hilariously funny Huff

Cliff Cardinal in Huff - photo by akipari
Cliff Cardinal in Huff – photo by akipari

“There is one thing we know attracts Trickster: fear.”

Better late than never; I was originally scheduled to see Native Earth Performing Arts’ production of Cliff Cardinal’s Huff a week ago, but got grounded by a nasty cold – so I was very happy to have a chance to see it last night. Directed by Karin Randoja and currently running at Aki Studio, Huff is an incredibly strong opener for Native Earth’s 2015-16 season.

Last night’s performance featured a pre-show chat with the design team: Jackie Chau (set and costume), Michelle Ramsay (lighting) and Alex Williams (sound). Moderated by Native Earth’s Managing Director Isaac Thomas, the group talked about their early influences and what drew them to theatre production; and how a history of working together brings an organic rhythm and shorthand in communication, as well as a sense of trust (and the camaraderie was evident in the exchange between them). The design elements are integrated in such a way that if one were missing, there would be a hole in the production – light, sound and space equally important in telling this story.

When asked about the personal importance of telling the story of Huff, Chau highlighted the universal and resonant themes of loss, pain and forgiveness; Ramsay pointed out that it’s important to tell stories that don’t often get told/heard, and how Huff goes beyond what you might see in a news headline to the emotional core of the experience. Williams, a First Nations ally who keeps in touch with FN issues and supports FN productions, has a great deal of respect for this work – and pointed out the interconnectedness of the creative, intellectual and emotional in Huff, even through the play’s theme of disconnection.

Once the stage has cleared in preparation for the performance to begin, you take it in. Four flats, with a flickering projection of a Vacant sign on the one down stage right; centre stage, on the floor, a painted circle like the moon, transected with branch-like appendages. And within the space, a case of beer, an overturned chair, a lone beer bottle, an ottoman. Simple, but evocative – and made to stand alone, as well as to travel well for the production’s tour dates.

Three young brothers struggle with neglect, abuse and addiction after the death of their mother, spending more time at an abandoned motel than they do at home or school. Told from the point of view of the middle brother, Wind – performed by Cree playwright/actor Cardinal – Huff is a one-man show with a cast of many characters that incorporates Indigenous mythology, storytelling and first-person narrative. The opening scene is by turns darkly funny, heart-pounding and raw – leaving no room for doubt that this is some serious shit. Cardinal turns it from harrowing to hilarious with puckish mischief and charm, a dynamic that continues throughout the telling of this tale.

Cardinal’s performance is razor sharp and direct, but also engaging and irreverently funny – and he regularly breaks the fourth wall to yank us into the story, making the audience part of Wind’s world. This dynamic adds to the tension of the piece – and forces us to recognize that, as witnesses, we are culpable in our passivity and in our actions. The effect is both fascinating and disconcerting. [Those of you who’ve read cowbell before know that I don’t like spoilers, so you’ll be getting none here. You’ll just have to go see for yourselves.] And ever present, watchful and full of shenanigans is Trickster.

Adeptly spinning out scenes and moments from Wind’s troubled, hallucination-filled fantasy world, Cardinal fluidly weaves in and out of each character. Protective of his younger brother (a wide-eyed, adorable and magical child), but caught in the middle between him and their cruel, abusive older brother, and their largely absent, frustrated father, Wind vacillates between disconnection and revelation – trying to keep the darkness at bay with beer, gas sniffing and dangerous games, but ultimately undone by the growing awareness that he can’t get away. The appearance of the boys’ hapless, put-upon step-mother; their straight-talking, pragmatic grandmother; their uptight, ineffectual and punitive schoolteacher; goofy, elf-like friend; and the icy cool and cocky local radio DJ inject comic relief to the tale, as well as insights on the harsh realities of everyday life on the reservation. Ultimately, Wind’s journey leads him to the darkest place in order for him to see the light.

So next time you see a high or drunk native person, or read about a native kid who died huffing gasoline, don’t be so quick to judge – and stop to think about what horrors brought them to that place.

Huff is a compelling piece of storytelling, unflinching in its harsh reality, charming in its magic, deeply poignant and funny.

Huff continues at Aki Studio until October 25; then it’s off on an eight-city national tour (check back in at the Huff page on the Native Earth site for details). Get out to see this. Click here for the Aki Studio run tickets and location info.

You can keep up with Native Earth Performing Arts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.