You are going to need to assemble some friends after seeing Washington Ensemble Theatre's production of Jennifer Haley's The Nether, which opens this Friday at 12th Ave Arts. The play will seduce you, and then it will mess with your mind, and then it will make you think about the relationship between technology and morality and mental health and justice and crimes in ways that will require more than one drink, or one toke, or one pot lozenge, or one strong cup of tea with your buds once the show is done.
The "pixel wall" you see in the above rendering serves as a really large projection screen. Tremendously talented scenic designer, Tristan Roberson, and his sterling crew created the wall from over 1,500 pieces of plywood, each hanging from the rafters on its own string. Using computer software, Roberson can make the wall look like a lush forest, or he can get real detailed and project individual images onto each of the panels.
The sheer size of the wall will make you feel immersed in "the Hideaway," a virtual world citizens in Hayley's drama use to escape their dystopian reality. Outside of the Hideaway there are food shortages, land shortages, and general cultural rot. Inside the Hideaway there are flowers and sunshine and sweet breezes. The characters' digital avatars are equipped with sensors that allow them to feel the heat of the sun, the sweat beading up on their foreheads, and the cool wind brushing against their cheek. The place is so pleasurable that characters called "shades" opt to abandon their bodily lives so they can spend the rest of their days walking around in their VR paradise. The Hideaway is a world without consequence, a place where dreams can be fulfilled. But some characters in the show dream of having sex with child-like avatars, and also killing them in horrifically violent ways. That's where stuff starts to get weird.
The action begins in an interrogation room in the real world. Detective Morris (Pilar O'Connell) grills a businessman named Sims, aka Papa, (James Weidman), who runs a digital playground where adult-looking avatars have sex with childlike avatars. Papa says the people behind the childlike avatars are consenting adults, and he morally defends his venture by saying it keeps pedophiles from harming children in real life, plus it's all imaginary anyway. Morris argues that Papa's place fosters "a culture of legitimization," and fears that people will begin to act out their sick fantasies in the real world. And that's only one of several complex moral arguments going on in this fast-paced, intense show.
Director Bobbin Ramsey says no other production of The Nether has incorporated the virtual realty world of the Hideaway as seamlessly as WET will in their production. While others have situated the interrogation room downstage and the Hideaway upstage, the pixel wall allows WET to fully swap scenes so audiences will feel more immersed in the VR world. They want audience members to feel like they don't want to leave the Hideaway. "We go from the interrogation room, which is cold and lonely and dark, and then we enter into a space that is beautiful and comforting and we want to stay there," Ramsey says. "We're going for tension that creates—of knowing what this place contains, and knowing all the beauty is problematic.”
Ramsey says the cast talked about that tension during rehearsals. "There have been moments where we'll be like 'Oh my god that was so good, that was so beautiful,' and it's like they literally just delivered a monologue about molesting children." The play is so well-written and the characters are so sympathetically drawn that Ramsey says the cast needed to take breaks and "reevaluate stuff" after long evenings of rehearsal.
In their early discussions about some of the problems the show raises, Ramsey says the cast talked a lot about "pro-social pedophiles," who recognize that their "sexuality" is wrong and seek treatment to address it. They thought about the moral questions posed by chemical castration and other harsher forms of psychotherapy. They wrestled with the idea of "playgrounds" in the online video game Second Life, where users can roleplay sex with young avatars. But their conversations remained largely philosophical. Ramsey told me there just isn't a lot of "information, studies, or evidence about how virtual spaces or even phone sex has an impact on pedophiles in particular, because nobody will fund those studies." And they often returned to the same concern: "What happens when the sensations in the Hideaway aren't enough anymore? That’s a question I ask myself a lot," O'Connell said.
Though all the implied pedophilia is certainly the most shocking part of the show, Ramsey stresses that the play isn't "about" pedophilia. "Because we all have such strong feelings about not molesting children, we can have a really nuanced conversation about the relationship between morality and technology, knowing those are the stakes, and knowing that virtual reality is becoming more and more of our daily life," she said.
That's where the pixel wall comes in again. Though the wall makes you feel like you're inhabiting a beautiful landscape, the little pixels read as glitches, reminding you that that the world on the screen isn't real, and that the people you meet in that world are showing you only one facet of themselves. The technology isn't quite good enough yet to let us forget all that. But it will be. And plays like The Nether are here to help us think through it all.