The line between the real and the virtual is blurring, and Jennifer Haley takes it a leap further in The Nether: she imagines a future in which customers act out, through virtual avatars, urges that are socially taboo in the “real” world. But is one world really more “real” than the other? Are ugly virtual acts morally defensible? Under the finely tuned direction of Christine Louise Marshall, Mad Horse stages a strikingly designed, hauntingly performed exploration of technology and human need.
The “real” world of The Nether is one of bleak cyber-Brutalist lines and palette: dark concrete; silver-gray chairs; a stainless steel table with inset digital tablet. A black-clad investigator, Morris (Janice Gardner), separately interrogates two men in gray: Sims (Paul Haley), with an aristocratic face, bearing, and arrogance, is the creator and host of “The Hideaway,” a virtual realm for “opportunity outside of consequence,” of which Doyle (Tim Ferrell) is an obsessively loyal customer.
In a nicely staged contrast to this starkness, The Hideaway is a Victorian heaven of lovely analogue objects, tailored clothes, and beautiful people, all glazed in clear, warm light. Sims appears here as “Papa”; his favorite “child” is Iris (Maiya Koloski), in white petticoats, ribbons, and perfect dark ringlets. Enter Woodnut (Nick Schroeder, a writer for this newspaper), a first-time customer who develops his own special affinity for Iris.
As we alternate between worlds, Mad Horse cannily emphasizes both the appeal of the virtual world’s luxury and the physical world’s dearth of it. The interrogation scenes (though sometimes a little rhetorical or expository) provide fascinating moments with the faces of men straining to contain their emotions — shifting disdain, fear, shame, and grief — acted with magnificent restraint and nuance by Haley and Ferrell. Similar emotions also pass the face of their interrogator, in time, and Gardner does particularly fine work as Morris’s own motivations prove less certain, more complex.
In the picture-perfect Hideaway, Haley and Koloski conjure a disarmingly complex intimacy, with the power dynamic of father and daughter, the intelligent mutual awareness of lovers, and the no-nonsense candor of business associates. Watch Papa scold Iris; watch her happily lay her head in the crook of his arm; watch her shift from easy affection, draped around his neck, to workaday flatness when a bell signals a customer. Haley navigates Papa’s complexities with riveting intelligence and empathy; watch Papa’s look of mingled surprise, amusement, love, and professional curiosity to hear Iris say, as prelude to a birthday request, “I’ve never asked you for anything, have I?”
And young Koloski is so good that she’s downright spooky, with her Iris’s childlike alacrity, her watchful depth of feeling, and an eerily beyond-her-age intelligence that sometimes flickers, sometimes floodlights through her gaze. Watch her stroke a toy rabbit and quietly hypnotize Woodnut, who is, in Schroeder’s deft hands, awash with awe, alarm, and arousal. In one taut scene, Iris teaches him jacks, and the more his hands master the virtual but tactile game, the more his lips part in several kinds of excitement.
Indeed, how gorgeously, achingly sensual is this virtual world: Woodnut in ivory pinstripes with a bouquet of pink peonies. Papa in chocolate brown, handing Woodnut a cognac; Woodnut’s awed face, as he swirls the glass, lit with golden reflections of light and liquor. At the heart of The Nether, finally, is a longing for the tangible, the “real” — a record with real grooves, a real poplar tree, a “real” connection. This human need, as we see in Mad Horse’s exquisitely wrought production, one way or the other drives the pulse of any world.
The Nether, by Jennifer Haley | Directed by Christine Louise Marshall. Produced by Mad Horse Theatre Company, 24 Mosher St., in South Portland | Through February 5 | http://www.madhorse.com/