In a Lansing, Mich., courtroom last week, USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing and assaulting more than 150 women and girls – some as young as 6 years old – over at least two decades.
In the months preceding Nassar’s sentencing, Harvey Weinstein’s Hollywood persona had mutated from media mogul to sexual predator, as dozens of women stepped forward to recount horrific tales of sexual abuse and harassment.
But what if these men had performed their heinous acts in a virtual reality? What if the victims were not real, but instead figments of a perverted imagination? Would society still view those acts as aberrant or criminal?
These are the sort of provocative questions raised in Capital Stage Company’s disturbing but compelling – and timely – production of “The Nether.” Set in the near future in an unnamed American community, “The Nether” examines the intersection of virtual reality, technology, privacy, relationships, and social and sexual norms. It is an intersection of violent collisions, and none of the characters make it through unharmed.
Sharing DNA with the British sci-fi series “Black Mirror,” playwright Jennifer Haley’s incendiary drama crackles with coarse language, sordid behavior and dangerous thoughts. Not surprisingly, the play comes with a warning of “intense adult themes.”
“The Nether” refers to a vast virtual universe that has evolved out of the internet. It has grown so large, so popular and so lucrative that an entire regulatory, administrative and law enforcement structure has developed to help govern its use and abuse.
The story centers on the conflict between a Nether detective and a successful Nether entrepreneur named Sims (a nod to the popular life-simulation video games “The Sims”). Detective Morris knows Sims has created a place in the Nether called the Hideaway, where users can indulge their darkest, most retrograde desires, but she can’t locate the server to shut it down.
“Solicitation. Rape. Sodomy. Murder. These are serious charges, Mr. Sims,” Detective Morris tells her suspect.
But Sims does not apologize for the Hideaway. He takes pride in the world he has created, where he goes by the name of “Papa” and role plays with others in a Victorian-era house. They dress in gentile, period attire as they act out sick, erotic fantasies, which include having sex with young girls and killing them with axes – and of being one of those girls themselves.
The Hideaway, Sims explains, is “an opportunity to live outside of consequence.”
“The Nether” is a production built for speed, not comfort. It’s a one-act play with no intermission that hurtles with ferocity through 17 scenes in about 75 minutes. Even so, the story progresses fluidly, thanks to Kirk Blackinton’s direction, and the talented five-actor ensemble, three of whom are making their Capital Stage debut with this drama.
Imani Mitchell, as Morris, and Tim Kniffin, as Sims/Papa, are compelling and well matched as the sparring antagonists. Mitchell is crafty and cocky as the streetwise, no-nonsense detective who knows all the answers before she asks the questions. She has the interrogation shtick down, and she works it with Sims and Doyle (played by Graham Scott Green), a visitor to the Hideaway whom Morris tries to convince to roll over on Sims.
Kniffin is unnerving as the entrepreneurial pedophile who says he is doing society a favor by channeling his admittedly sick behavior into the Nether: “I am protecting my neighbor’s children and my brother’s children and the children I won’t allow myself to have,” he says at one point. And as Papa at the Hideaway, Kniffin is downright creepy as the father figure to a young girl named Iris.
Twelve-year-old Kylie Standley impresses as the innocent, precocious Iris. But she struggles with some of the more complicated facets of her role, particularly when she attempts to seduce the awkward, nervous Woodnut, played by Jeb Burris. (Critiquing a 12-year-old girl’s ability to convincingly portray a seductress is admittedly disquieting, but to paraphrase “The Godfather: Part II,” this is the business she has chosen.)
The technical production values add to the mood and movement of this tense drama, particularly Timothy McNamara’s scenic and lighting design. He creates a futuristic interrogation room with an intricate bright blue grid painted on the floor, augmented by eerie blue lighting. He also manages to make the Hideaway’s Victorian aesthetic feel more authentic than ersatz, no small feat.
In addition, Russell Dow’s and Ed Lee’s creative video projection and propulsive sound design help to transport the audience.
What: An award-winning drama that pits a young detective against a virtual reality entrepreneur and his dark, mysterious wonderland. Written by Jennifer Haley. Directed by Kirk Blackinton.
Where: Capital Stage, 2215 J St., Sacramento
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 25.
Cost: $28-$40, including discounts for students, seniors and military.
Information: 916-995-5464 or capstage.org
Running time: About 75 minutes, with no intermission