The Nether mines dark terrain
By Jennifer Haley. Directed by Chris Lam. A Redcurrant Collective production. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Thursday, January 19. Continues until January 28
“Just because it’s virtual doesn’t 2
mean it isn’t real,” says a character early on in The Nether. Though the play deals with hot topics like online identity and pedophilia, this riveting production keeps the ethical debate on the back burner, instead foregrounding its highly unconventional love story.
In Jennifer Haley’s taut script, what we currently know as our physical reality has been all but subsumed by the virtual world. Nature has been pretty much eradicated. Children— and there aren’t many left—don’t go to school; they are educated by immersive educational games in the online world of the Nether. Many people have “crossed over” and become “shades”, abandoning their real-life identities and responsibilities for a full-time virtual existence.
One of the few remaining forms of authentic face-to-face contact, it seems, is the interrogation, and at the top of the play, Det. Morris is questioning Sims, known online as Papa. Sims has created a virtual realm called the Hideaway, a sense-rich evocation of the Victorian era where references to contemporary technology are forbidden and visitors can have sex with children. Sims argues that since all the players in his realm are adults, he’s actually protecting real children from their would-be predators, but a skeptical Morris sends an investigator, Woodnut, into the realm to gather more information. She also questions Doyle, a former teacher who is one of the Hideaway’s regular visitors. The play pivots between the interrogation room and the virtual realm, where we watch Woodnut fall in love with Iris, a nine-year-old girl.
Director Chris Lam’s minimalist staging is effective; the powerful contrast between the sterility of the real world and the richness of the Hideaway is largely left to our imagination and to the exquisitely atmospheric and subtly ominous sound design, by James Coomber, and lighting, by Jonathan Kim.
And Lam’s five-member cast is terrific. David Bloom, as Sims, and Linden Banks, as Doyle, both give nuanced performances that make them impossible to write off as easy villains. Lissa Neptuno makes Morris a levelheaded, brass-tacks investigator, and Douglas Ennenberg imbues Woodnut with an openhearted innocence. Julia Siedlanowska finds depth and texture in the vulnerable and preternaturally wise Iris.
“It’s okay to forget who you think you are and discover who you might be,” Iris tells Woodnut, encouraging him to pursue his fantasies, and the characters’ discoveries are both surprising and troubling. Ultimately, the world of The Nether proves to be as morally ambiguous as the one we currently inhabit. > KATHLEEN OLIVER
LOVE AND INFORMATION
By Caryl Churchill. Directed by Lauren Taylor..
A UBC Department of Theatre and Film production. At the Frederic Wood Theatre on Thursday, January 19. Continues until February 4
It takes a kind of fearlessness 2
to even attempt to stage Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information. There are more than 100 characters and 50-plus vignettes packed inside the play’s tight 90 minutes, and there’s no easy through-line with which to connect the dots. Instead, there are fragments, some more successful than others, exploring the titular elements of love and information and their extrapolations: feelings and facts, relationships and choices, and chaos and order in the 21st century.
A play like this—in which actors are often tasked with establishing fully realized characters on nothing much more than a few lines of dialogue, a costume change, and some props—is perfect fodder for students developing their craft. Occasionally, that’s what Love and Information feels like, though: a classroom exercise with an audience. Some of the jokes don’t land, or the dialogue just gets too cluttered and messy because of Churchill’s fondness for characters speaking over each other and cutting one another off. Love and Information also suffers somewhat from a lack of complexity. It’s as if Churchill was so in love with her own concept she didn’t concern herself with moments that come off as a bit clichéd, like the recurring vignette “Depression”, which features a character alone in the dark, a large projection of the actor’s sad-looking face looming in the background.
On the bright side, because of the sheer number of characters, every actor in the 18-person cast gets at least one moment to shine, and Sabrina Vellani is a standout. Her comic timing and delivery are excellent, she’s incredibly natural, and I found myself perking up every time she appeared on-stage. She’s one to watch.
The real stars of Love and Information are director Lauren Taylor and the crew. With all of the moving parts—humans, props, costumes, projections, lighting, et cetera— this is one of the most polished and beautifully produced shows I’ve ever seen. Sophie Tang’s set and projection design are flawless, as are Stefan Zubovic’s lighting and projection design. Costume designer Alaia Hamer had 100 characters to dress, and from the teens in two purposefully different but similar Justin Bieber shirts to the game-show contestants wearing outlandish neon-coloured formal wear (very much inspired by the Capitol dwellers in The Hunger Games), every look is perfect. The pace is breakneck, but it never feels rushed, and that’s a testament to Taylor’s confidence with
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the material. She rises above Love and Information’s weak spots and takes everybody else with her. > ANDREA WARNER
By Caroline Horton. Directed by Alex Swift. A Caroline Horton & Co./china Plate production. A Push International Performing Arts Festival presentation. At the Waterfront Theatre on January 19. No remaining performances
“Don’t leave!” jokes a performer 2
when the subject of Mess is announced to be anorexia nervosa, acknowledging the discomfort the subject might provoke. “I hugged an anorexic once,” he goes on, “and it was very uncomfortable—all those bones sticking out.”
That moment, with its combination of candour and irreverence, represents what works best about Mess, a show intended to reach young audiences without condescending to them. English playwright Caroline Horton plays Josephine, who, with the help of her friend Boris (Hannah Boyde) and musician Sistahl (Seiriol Davies), is putting on a play about her experiences with an eating disorder serious enough to land her in the hospital. Josephine admits that it’s hard to figure out the play’s beginning, because the discovery emerged gradually that her anxiety could be managed through an obsessive regimen of controlling and tracking her food intake. The details in her recollection are powerful: a “treat” consists of a trip to the drugstore to weigh herself on a scale that provides printouts; later, at a rehab clinic, her copy of Shakespeare’s complete works is confiscated because she’s using it for step-ups.
Fiammetta Horvat’s simple set—a woolly platform colonized by a parasol on which Josephine hangs medals that represent her achievements, and a duvet that symbolizes the “encompassing and comforting” nature of her illness—reinforces the character’s isolation, as do the increasingly awkward scenes in which her goodnatured friend Boris struggles to figure out how to help, or even connect with, Josephine.
Stylistically, the play is a mixed bag. Horton’s Josephine is emotionally restrained, suggesting how much of her turmoil is internal. But it’s unclear why both Boyde’s Boris and Davies’s Sistahl are clown figures, and the effect of some of Davies’s songs, which neither advance the plot nor offer insight into character, is to drag down the show’s already slow pace.
Still, Mess is a courageous piece of theatre that tackles a difficult issue without offering any easy answers. Its insight and compassion are worth sharing. > KATHLEEN OLIVER
David Bloom and Lissa Neptuno star in The Nether, in which a detective interrogates a man who’s built a disturbing online world. Raymond Shum photo.
In the insightful Mess, Caroline Horton plays a woman who puts on a play about her experiences with an eating disorder. Edmund Collier photo.