photo by Alan Dehmer
Lazarus Simmons and Marleigh Purgar-McDonald in The Nether
Manbites Dog Theater, Durham
Through April 23
In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry
writes about how technology has extended our physical abilities and senses. The hammer and handgun concentrate applied force; the telescope lengthens eyesight; microphones and loudspeakers amplify voices; bicycles and cars expand mobility. But as networked computers exponentially increase our computational, sensory, and data-gathering powers, some say the human body is becoming increasingly dislocated in the digital rush. Soon, it might be all but discarded.
explores a very unsettling facet of this possibility in The Nether,
her creepy 2013 sci-fi drama. Director Jules Odendahl-James and set designer Sonya Leigh Drum bring Haley's high-tech police procedural to Durham in an effectively down-to-earth production at Manbites Dog Theater
Haley’s near future has familiar dystopian landmarks. In a denuded natural world, trees, grass, and vegetables are rarities only the wealthy can afford. Outdoor play, we’re told, is a thing of the past. As a predictable result, people are spending a lot more time on computers. Most adults work, and almost all children are schooled, in an online realm called The Nether, an enhanced internet offering immersive and interactive sights, sounds, sensations, odors, and tastes.
As Sims (Michael Brocki), the designer of an online Victorian-style realm called The Hideaway, puts it, The Nether is this culture’s “contextual framework for being.” That has become a problem, since Sims designed The Hideaway to give pedophiles a place to engage those behaviors without harming actual children. In The Hideaway, adult laborers play the virtual children. The realm—as he tells the enigmatic Iris (Marleigh Purgar-McDonald), an employee portraying a young girl online—is “an opportunity to live outside of consequences.”
But The Nether has also become a political body, able to make—and quickly change—its own laws, jurisdictions, forms of prosecution, and punishments. And consequences have arisen, as Detective Morris (Caitlin Wells) informs Sims in an interrogation room. As a result, he now faces multiple counts of solicitation, rape, and murder. Between sessions where Morris grills Sims and Cedric Doyle (Michael Foley), an old man who frequents The Hideaway, we see online flashbacks where adults interact behind carefully disguised avatars.
Haley takes on the ethics of unvirtuous behavior in virtual worlds. In her future, society still doesn’t know what to do with people with psychiatric disorders or how to defuse their destructive potential. In one light, Sims’s Hideaway is a place for the sick to safely address their demons. In another, it “foster[s] a culture of legitimization,” in Morris’s words—if it doesn’t give them an arena in which to rehearse.
An avatar calmly wielding an ax is discomforting enough, but equally chilling is the rampant outsourcing. It's already the norm in present-day online business, so that employers don't have to deal with the living and working conditions of freelancers in Wake County or coders in Bangalore. When Thomas Woodnut (Lazarus Simmons), a shaken guest, asks the person playing Iris if she actually suffers from the lethal blows administered to her character, she responds, “I feel as much pain as I want.” When pressed on how much that is, she says, “That’s rather a personal question.”
Under Odendahl-James’s direction, Brocki’s stiffness suits Sims and his online avatar, Papa, though Wells spends a bit too much time smirking as Morris. Foley’s take on the proud and battered Cedric Doyle is easily the strongest performance. Ultimately, we learn that when human suffering is outsourced in supposedly virtual and victimless play, it doesn’t just vanish into the cloud. The damage registers on bodies, first hidden and then revealed, in this gripping psychological drama.