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REVIEW: Finely Tuned, Stomach-Churning The Nether (Jungle Theater)

Sims/Papa (Stephen Yoakam) and Morris (Mo Perry) in a promotional photograph for the Jungle Theater’s production of The Nether.

The Nether, currently playing at the Jungle Theater, is the best-made play that I despise. I despise this play even more than I dislike writing a review from the first person perspective. However, it is a necessary device due to the huge variance between my subjective and objective evaluation of this play.

Let’s back up. The Nether is a science fiction crime thriller written by Jennifer Haley. The play was first publicly seen while being developed at the 2011 National Playwrights Conference, which is how I first learned of it. Readers of Richard K. Morgan’s novel Altered Carbon (now the basis of a Netflix series), to which the play owes a clear debt, will find themselves right at home with the play’s lingo; newbies will catch on fairly quickly.

The Jungle Theater’s production of The Nether is near faultless in terms of execution. It is without exception well-acted, with slickly executed transitions between the real and virtual worlds. On a technical level, the choice of projected video close-ups of the interrogated characters’ faces is undermined by an unusually long video delay and the choice to double the projections. While the projections do allow audiences to see the expressions of actors in full profile, by a few scenes in it becomes both headache-inducing and distracting like the bizarre symmetries in Elle Yana’s music video of Non so più cosa son faccio.

Projections aside, the two different on-stage worlds are elegantly and contrastingly rendered by Barry Browning’s lighting design, Lee Savage’s scenic design, and well accented by the costumes by by Mathew J. LeFebvre and sound by C. Andrew Mayer.

As the alternate protagonist and villain of the piece, Stephen Yoakam (Sims/Papa) anchors the story with a series of eloquent and evocative monologues embedded into the dynamic back-and-forth exchanges that typify the real world of the script. Much of the virtual world’s balance – and the central conceit of a virtual Elysium of sorts – is buoyed by Ella Freeburg’s bright, earnest performance as Iris. Mixed in the middle are Mo Perry as Morris, Craig Johnson as Doyle, and JuCoby Johnson as Woodnut, all playing characters whose lives are filled with hinted secrets threatening to be thrust unwillingly into the open. These performances are, again, excellent to the point of exceptionalness, and carefully balanced by Casey Stangl’s direction.

As for the story: watching The Nether will equally thrill and disturb you for a long time afterwards. Like browsing the dark bowels of the Internet, there are some things that cannot be unseen or quickly pushed aside. It’s no surprise that almost every review of the show talks about wanting to cleanse, take a shower, go for a walk, and discuss the story. The story is extremely topical and arguably an important thing to determine as a society in this day and age, but that doesn’t make it any less troubling to have thrust in front of you.

The Nether earns each of the many perception shifts during its rollercoaster ride, and the twists and turns of the plot revelations reward attention to detail as well as any Sherlock Holmes mystery. Whether you consider that an acceptable price of admission for a few days of disturbed distraction and/or annoyance is something that you, dear reader, will have to decide for yourself. Don’t go in expecting an ordinary night at the theatre.

The Nether plays through October 21 at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine