MANILA — When director Ana Abad-Santos first read playwright Jennifer Haley’s “The Nether,” it was, as she calls it, “love at first sight.”
Theatergoers who are familiar with Abad-Santos’ theater company, Red Turnip Theater, would not be surprised at this. As it enters its fifth year, Red Turnip has developed a reputation for picking edgy and thought-provoking material. From its debut play “Closer” to last year’s acclaimed “Tribes,” Red Turnip has been boldly championing works that “make you think and feel.”
With “The Nether,” Red Turnip pushes the envelope even further as it courts not just discussion but controversy. As Abad-Santos described in her director’s notes, it is a play that “bravely dives into the horrors of man, the unspeakable and still makes sense of it.”
The “horror” is pedophilia. In fact, the play goes further to include killing and dismembering children. Granted that the child is just an avatar in the darkest corners of the virtual Nether (a bleak vision of what the internet could become in the not-so-distant future) that easily comes back to life. But the fact this sci-fi scenario is being played out live on stage makes for a disturbing albeit fascinating 90 minutes of provocative theater.
At the center of “The Nether” is Sims, a self-confessed pedophile who created the Hideaway, where people like him can play out their forbidden fantasies. For him, it would be better to act on these sexual urges in his virtual playground instead of the real world.
But when female detective Morris discover this “new brand of disturbing entertainment,” she is understandably repulsed. When the play opens, she is interrogating an obviously irate and a very defensive Sims.
To further pin down Sims, Morris also brings in for questioning Doyle, a science teacher and a regular at the Hideaway, who hopes to stay there permanently.
These two interrogations allow Haley to push this unsettling debate as we get to hear a rational and no less impassioned defense of what we all agree is abhorrent behavior.
Further adding to the audience discomfort is seeing the Hideaway come to life with an actual child actress. Seeing the child interact with Sims (known as Papa in the Hideaway), no matter how innocent their actions, is bound to upset even if we all know that this is make believe.
Veteran actor Bernardo Bernardo makes a thunderous Red Turnip debut as Sims. Bernardo forces this monster upon the audience as he bravely and unapologetically embraces his character’s dark side and makes his case. We may not agree with him but Bernardo succeeds in making us understand where the character is coming from.
As Morris, Jenny Jamora matches Bernardo’s intensity with her character’s own brand of stubborn righteousness and seeing them parry with logic and reasoning is engrossing.
Bodjie Pascua as Doyle brings an altogether different dimension with his cerebral musings about the virtual world. But when Morris breaks through Doyle’s seemingly impenetrable facade, it takes “The Nether” into another dramatic level and triggers a new set of feels.
Haley insisted on casting an actual child as Iris and she couldn’t find another child more delicate as Alba Berenguer-Testa with her white skin and doll-like facial features. The 11-year-old child, who played one of the orphans in Resorts World Manila’s production of “Annie,” brings an unmistakable innocence and cheery disposition, which all the more makes the scenes creepy, especially when she sits on Papa’s lap or when she makes a proposition to undercover investigator Woodcut (a well cast TJ Trinidad).
The post-apocalyptic coats and wardrobe in the interrogation scenes nicely contrast to the conservative and perfectly styled clothes in the Hideaway, although the set, save for the video projections of a grid, could have been more alluring as mentioned in the text.
Despite this, Haley has undeniably made such a taboo topic so riveting — moving, even — and Abad-Santos played it like a cold psychological thriller to ensure that it doesn’t feel exploitative.
“The Nether” is deep inside about seeking human connection and perhaps love in a world that is increasingly turning bleak and dark. What it suggests about all of us is what truly makes it disturbing.
“The Nether” runs until April 9 at the Power Mac Center Spotlight Theater in Circuit, Makati City.