The Nether mines dark ter­rain

The Georgia Straight - - Arts -


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


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.

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