Stephen Yoakam and Mo Perry in the Jungle Theater’s upcoming production of The Nether. Photo by William Clark.
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the theatre, another play about child abuse is opening in Uptown Minneapolis.
In case the above sentence didn’t tip you off, have some trigger warnings: violence against children, sexual abuse of minors, misleading omissions, and spoilers. You’ve been warned.
From the advertising copy, you’d never know that Jennifer Haley’s play The Nether is about child abuse and murdering children. Instead, this play opening Saturday, September 16 at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis is advertised with very deliberate vagueness. Consider this blurb: “When a detective uncovers a disturbing brand of online entertainment, she triggers an intense battle between technology and human desire.” That much is technically true, although “disturbing” is missing more than a few helpful modifiers. Readers who spot the warning “This show contains strong language and mature sexual content” could easily be forgiven for thinking it’s the onstage equivalent of a movie’s rating, covering swearing and the normal run-of-the-mill nudity and sex scenes. In fact, the warning barely hints – some would say utterly fails to hint – at what lies inside.
“When a detective uncovers a disturbing brand of online entertainment, she triggers an intense battle between technology and human desire.”
When contemplating The Nether and its marketing, some déja vu is unavoidable. In early August, Sean Neely’s self-titled Fringe play set off a rather large tempest in the Twin Cities theatrical teapot. That show, most of whose content was rumored rather than known at the time, contains a lengthy discussion of a stage character’s attraction to children. Neely was excoriated on social media well before the show opened, with many online and offline commentators equating the character with the actor and implying that he was a danger to his own children.
Among the many other accusations leveled at Neely was that he was playing a game of bait and switch for which he has become notorious in the Twin Cities: giving one show description online and then changing it after audiences have arrived. This impression was abetted by the terse advance description of his 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival show, which for much of the festival read only that “Sean Neely is about Sean Neely.” There was, perhaps, a small amount of bait and switch in the end – relatively little, compared to some of the artist’s previous Fringe appearances – as the post facto show description currently reads “Sean Neely. Theatre. Pedophilia.”
Lost in the Neely scandal was that, just blocks away, the Jungle Theater was preparing to do more or less the same thing, marketing-wise. Although the Jungle has built much of its reputation on producing provocative and thought-provoking content, The Nether has presented something of a marketing quandary to the staff. (I myself overheard several staff discussions while interviewing Fringe artists at the adjacent Muddy Waters Bar & Eatery; the themes of those discussions were also confirmed by other sources at the theatre.) The problem came down to this: the Jungle Theater was preparing to present a play in which adults being attracted to children takes front and center stage. What combination of disclosure and discretion would avoid a social media firestorm while also bringing in audiences to the piece?
The Jungle Theater was preparing to do more or less the same thing that Neely was being excoriated for: presenting a play in which adults being attracted to children takes front and center stage.
It’s not that child abuse is a forbidden topic on stage – look at, for example, The Bluest Eye at the Guthrie last season. It’s also not uncommon for child abuse to be a weighty element in a character’s past – see the opera Cold Sassy Tree, for example, its manifestation in the “soiled woman” model of self-loathing. Advertising this content element, though, is not a very easy proposition to market – on any given Sunday, who wants to sign up for 90 minutes of that? What constitutes sufficient audience warning without spoiling details of the plot?
When dealing with this “mature sexual content”, many theatres choose to skate around the issue and allow audiences to learn about this in situ while watching a play. The very successful London production of The Nether also took a “hint vague and surprise them” approach to audience warnings and advertising. That angle arguably had more informative copy, but still remained quite vague:
The Nether offers complete freedom – a new virtual wonderland providing total sensory immersion. Just log in, choose an identity and indulge your every desire.
An intricate crime drama and a haunting thriller set in the year 2050, The Nether follows an investigation into the complicated, disturbing morality of identity in the digital world, and explores the consequences of making dreams a reality.”
-advertising copy for The Nether in London
This emphasis on the detective story and thriller qualities of the play dominates most publicity for different productions of the play. Another consistent characteristic is the prevalence of talkbacks. Although despised by the playwright David Mamet, who’s banned them for several of his plays, post-show audience-actor talkbacks are offered at the Jungle Theater after every performance of The Nether. With the show’s content in mind, that seems a shrewd choice, if an exhausting one for the chosen actor(s) – at performances of Sean Neely, audience members lingered for a long time in the lobby, hoping for post-show discussions with the writer-performer that never materialized.
Here-in lies the play’s duality: while the narrative is riveting, the nature of the content gives the theatrical experience of it the opposite of catharsis. The same factors that helped earn the play a 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize leave readers in strong need of a deliberate post-show release. Unsurprisingly, an explicit sentiment of needing to cleanse and sanitize runs through many reviews of the play. As Jessica Goldman of the Houston Press wrote, “For me, this urge to discuss is the mark of a brilliant night in the theater… Just be sure to pack some metaphoric towelettes to help wipe the ick off on your way out.”
In reviewing a 2015 production of The Nether, Ben Brantley of the New York Times concluded, “The Nether exerts a viselike grip, while taking you down avenues of thought you probably haven’t traveled yet. After the show, you will probably not feel like turning on your computer or smartphone. You may, though, feel an overwhelming urge to take a shower.”
If you want a real spoiler for The Nether, here’s one: read Richard K. Morgan’s 2002 scifi action novel Altered Carbon. That’ll really give you something to talk about at the talkback for The Nether.