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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Getting to the truth, & touching on the why, about violence against women in the thought-provoking, chilling SMYTH / WILLIAMS

Deborah Drakeford, Lynette Gillis & Kim Nelson in SMYTH / WILLIAMS—photo by Yuri Dojc

War and violence against women not only have similar social, cultural, and religious supports, they are mutually reinforcing. These supports allow societies to tolerate conditions in which a third of women and girls can be treated violently, without mass outcry and rebellion. When we challenge the attitudes and norms that enable violence against women, we are also helping to confront the conditions that support war.—Reverend Susan Thistlethwaite (included in the program notes for SMYTH / WILLIAMS)

Trigger warning: This post reviews a verbatim theatre production based on the transcripts of a police interview with a convicted serial killer rapist.

One Little Goat Theatre Company opened its all-female staging of the Ontario Provincial Police (O.P.P.) transcript of Detective Jim Smyth’s interview of stalker and serial killer Russell Williams in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace last night. SMYTH / WILLIAMS was devised and directed by Adam Seelig.

Staged in a dramatically rendered police interview room (set by Jackie Chau and lighting by Laird Macdonald), including two microphone stands, two chairs and two copies of the transcript, the set also includes a drum kit, situated up centre, behind a pile of cedar chips on a floor that depicts a map. The transcript is a notable prop, not only for its occasional and specific use by the two actors (Deborah Drakeford and Kim Nelson), but for the extent to which it’s been redacted—in some parts heavily so—and those portions of the conversation between Smyth and Williams are filled in on stage by drum solos (Lynette Gillis).

The over seven-hour interview, which took place on February 7, 2010, has been pared down to about 90 minutes in this staged verbatim performance, with Drakeford and Nelson switching back and forth between characters, both playing Smyth and Williams at various points in the interview. The trajectory of the conversation begins with Williams being questioned as a person of interest in multiple crimes in the Ottawa and Belleville areas, to his arrest as evidence becomes available and search warrants executed on his homes, to his confession.

The cast is to be commended for their specific, respectful and focused performances of this difficult, disturbing material. Drakeford and Nelson establish a compelling dynamic between Smyth and Williams. Smyth is presented as the classic “good cop,” conducting the interview in a respectful, methodic but gentle way. Williams is the strong, silent type; a military man of few words who serves his country and appears to cooperate in the interest of serving his community in this investigation. The result is a pairing of strong feminine and masculine energies, with the interview shifting from more easy-going conversation to urgent strategizing as new information surfaces during the course of the investigation.

I was a bit baffled at first as to how the drum solos were going to work in the context of filling in redacted sections of the transcript (this info provided by Drakeford and Nelson at the beginning of the play; they also hold up their copies, showing the large blacked-out portions of the text in these instances). Drums are a primal, beat-driving percussion instrument; and Gillis is a skilled musician, drawing out the larger redactions with kick-ass precision. It’s an interesting and innovative piece of staging for what cannot be said—and one can only imagine that the redacted sections contain the more horrific details of Williams’ crimes. As the confession unfolds, there is an increasing Riot Grrrl vibe to Gillis’s performance—the drums beating out in anger and protest.

The production has not been without controversy. Terra Dafoe, a friend and neighbour of Jessica Lloyd, one of the women Williams abducted, raped and murdered, is at the forefront of a group that’s spearheaded a protest against the presentation of SMYTH / WILLIAMS, which they argue is a non-consensual and re-traumatizing production that sensationalizes violence against women. Dafoe was present at the opening last night, handing out a one-pager that states their case and includes a link to their Lead Now petition. Here’s a sampling of interviews from both the production (via News 1130) and the protest (via CBC).

Full disclosure: I was wary of seeing this production. Although I’m a big fan of TV crime procedurals, SMYTH / WILLIAMS is not a TV crime procedural. It’s real life. This is not fictitious, made-up dialogue—this conversation really happened, between a real detective and a real rapist/murderer. The women Williams stalked, harassed, raped and killed were real people. And, like those protesting the production, I was concerned about the details that would be revealed, as well as the traumatic effect of the subject matter. I decided to see it because I was curious as to whether such a production would have anything of value to say about violence against women. And, naively, I was hoping to find a ‘why.’ Why did he do it?

What I saw was a production that does not serve up salacious details—in fact, the disturbing details are kept to a minimum and what is included is presented in such a way as to show Williams’ apparent detachment from his actions, as well as the atrocity of those actions, when the actors peer out from their male characters and speak as women. Ironically, the turning point for Williams comes as he learns that search warrants are being executed on his homes—and he becomes deeply concerned about the negative impacts on his wife and the Canadian Armed Forces. Whether his concern came from a place of love and honour, or from a place of losing his grip on domination and control, it appears to be what ultimately spurred his confession. And an even bigger question mark is why he did what he did. Even if Williams knew, he wasn’t saying.

While I agree that seven years may be too soon for a theatrical examination of this case, I also have to wonder how one puts an arbitrary time limit on loss, grief and that deeply troubling ‘why.’ Theatre is a medium that helps us to explore all aspects of humanity and human experience—from the gods to the monsters—and I believe SMYTH / WILLIAMS and its opening night audience treated this real life piece of the more horrific side of humanity with respect and dignity.

The quote included at the beginning of this post, taken from the program notes, connects the dots between war and violence against women. While not a fulsome answer to the ‘why,’ it does give us a glimpse into the workings of a social infrastructure that supports ongoing violence against women and girls; and one from which a man like Williams emerged. I believe that widespread outcry and rebellion are growing, and that such push-back is amplified by the grief and rage incited by crimes like these, as well as the election of misogynists to high office.

There was no applause after the cast left the stage. No curtain call. A moment of silence for several moments followed before the audience gradually began hushed conversation and exited the space. This was not a reflection on the performances. Like the production, the audience wanted to treat the memories of the women that Williams harmed and murdered with respect and dignity—and in this way, the production and the petition are in agreement.

Getting to the truth, and touching on the why, about violence against women in the thought-provoking, chilling SMYTH / WILLIAMS.

This is not a production for everyone. If you decide to see SMYTH / WILLIAMS, there are some important questions you need to ask yourself. Why are you going to see it? Do you think the production contributes to the conversation about violence against women in a meaningful way? And if you happen to cross paths with Dafoe or another protestor, treat them with respect, hear what they have to say and read the hand-out. Free speech goes both ways—and both the protest and the production have important things to say.

SMYTH / WILLIAMS continues in the TPM Backspace until Mar 12; book in advance online or call 416-504-7529.