Review: The Nether at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

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Images create reality. The imagination creates images of our reality. There is a line, even in our imaginations, that we should not cross, but to enforce such a notion would be impossible. In a frighteningly realistic and none-too-distant futuristic world where the “Nether” (formerly the internet) has become the contextual framework for being, it’s okay to forget who you are and discover who you might be. It’s the golden opportunity to live without consequence in a reality that is not one’s own. But if there has been no consequence, then there has been no meaning. In a stunning and evocative drama penned by Jennifer Haley, a place called “The Hideaway” explores the possibility that images and sensations may only be fleeting and the only thing that truly matters is intrapersonal human relationships, regardless of their level of appropriateness. Directed by Shana Cooper, The Nether arrives on the stage of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company as the penultimate production of Season 36, gripping audiences from the moment it begins until its shocking emotional conclusion.

Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey (left) as Morris and Edward Gero (right) as Sims in The Nether at Woolly Mammoth Theatre CompanyScott Suchman
Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey (left) as Morris and Edward Gero (right) as Sims in The Nether at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

Visually stunning, the aesthetic of the production juxtaposes two sharply contrasting worlds in stark comparison to one another with such verve that the aesthetic exists with its own pulse and heartbeat completely separate yet integrally entwined with the movement of the show’s plot. Set Designer Sibyl Wickersheimer has constructed an isolated corner— appropriately fitting with Woolly Mammoth’s signature pre-show immersive lobby experience— that is angled forward into the audience on a thrust. Wickersheimer has fabricated a gray cube, a drab and non-descript, glass-enclosed space that captures the essence of an interrogational space. Blending this blank, albeit dreary, canvas with the creations of Projections Designer Jared Mezzocchi results in a sensational show aesthetic, particularly when the audience enters “The Nether” and particularly “The Hideaway.”

Mezzocchi fabricates a beautiful reality with striking clarity into the walls through the use of projection. There is radiant color and brightness, a beautiful contrast to the isolating monochrome grayscale used in reality. Mezzocchi’s projections possess the fluidity of movement and swirl around like ethereal wonder; the creation of Iris’ bedroom being one of the most breathtaking fusions of reality and virtual reality in the performance. Boiling to a point of stimulating sensory overload, Mezzocchi’s projections are underscored by Original Music Composer and Sound Designer Eric Shimelonis’ soundscape. A safe haven of warm summer wind and chimes, a little girl’s infectious yet haunting giggle ground audiences in the reality of “The Nether.” Shimelonis influences the pulse of the show’s aesthetic by using a harsh heavily bass-laden soundtrack tied into Mezzocchi’s more distorted projections to shift between the scenes of present gray-world reality and virtual-Nether existence.

Complimenting these stellar notions of design, the unique couture crafted by Costume Designer Kelsey Hunt establishes the hard boundaries between the two worlds of reality and fantasy. Though the costumes that appear in “The Nether” are predominantly white, they are accented with bright blues and golds, which still create a rich tapestry of vivacious life by comparison to the dull stone washes of gray and navy used in the reality world. Iris’ dress is noteworthy because of the fascinating minutia highlighted and Hunt’s particular attention to detail in its construction. The gray over-cloak wrapped around Sims keeps his pristine white “Papa” suit hidden from view until the exact moment that he enters the surreal reality of “The Nether.”

Jennifer Haley’s script is nothing short of riveting. The questions it raises and the conversation it dares to spark with theatergoers is bold and well within the wheelhouse of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s mission statement. The provocative ideas are wrapped cyclically around themselves in Haley’s plot and unfold in a manner that are both expected and shocking. There is an unsettling essence at the core of Haley’s work that forces the mind to reconcile ugly truths with painted imaginative beauty and this creates quite the moral conundrum for the conscious mind. Haley’s approach to the reality of the play, though supposedly set in 2050 is heavily laced with contemporary modernity. The Nether could happen to us tomorrow and the visceral reality which Haley creates among her characters and plot concepts is both frightening and exciting, a lurid blend of fascinating terror that will consume the mind for a full 80 minutes and unapologetically invade the imagination, daring you to defy its allure.

Director Shana Cooper masterfully explores the premises and concepts that Haley has put forth in the script in such a way that it feels brutally honest and yet impossibly chimerical all at once. This dizzying notion of safety among dangers and dangerousness amid reality is enough to blow the mind but Cooper finds a way to articulate these feelings both together and apart from one another in a way that ultimately makes the production a captivating experience. Toeing the micro-fine line between the two realities, Cooper delivers tender moments— like when Iris is dancing upon Woodnut’s (Tim Getman) feet or when she falls breathless from tickling into Papa’s arms outside in the bright afternoon sunlight— with striking clarity that are always just a breath away from delving into the dark and inappropriate nature of what’s really happening. The magical enchantment and lighthearted whimsy with which Cooper imbues scenes like these and others like them makes it easy to become disillusion over what is actually being witnessed and experienced.

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Morris (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey) serves as the grounding point to the morbidly dismal plane of actual reality. Fernandez-Coffey delivers the character with spitfire gusto, a raging sense of ferocious fire that burns from a dark place inside of her, reflecting both the character’s tenacity and internal conflicted struggles of her own past. Facing off in a great many interrogative scenes with Sims (Edward Gero) she drives the purpose of her intentions as a hard and unrelenting quest, which forces the interactive scenes between them forward in a compelling fashion.

Gero, who is Sims in reality and Papa in “The Nether”, displays an intriguing dichotomy of character making Papa and Sims dynamically different from one another though with a clear and concise through-line that connects them. Overtly charming as Papa, Gero’s insistence and determination to maintain his anonymity and righteousness in the overall situation matches the passionate flare with which Fernandez-Coffey goes after his jugular in various offensive-defensive struggle scenes. There is unfathomable compassion present in Gero’s performance, particularly when it comes to Iris (Maya Brettell.)

The picturesque epitome of winsome innocence, Brettell is as enchantingly magical as a butterfly in the role of Iris. Her ability to transform into this childlike creature that spins and twirls, giggles and plays, chatters and questions with the chaste simplicity of a cherubic incorruptible is astonishing and haunting. The affectation of her voice, not only into the higher prepubescent octave but into the tittering patois of a well-groomed child of nine years of age, completes the illusion that is so carefully crafted into the character that Haley has so exceptionally penned. Watching her dance in a moment of unadulterated bliss deeply moves the spirit and the soul when darker moments occur. The echo of her innocence which is heard in Doyle’s (Paul Vincent O’Connor) final monologue is harrowing and sends tingles up through the spine.     

Not without its darkened moments of black humor ever so delicately laced throughout, the production is filled with starling imagery that is both too beautiful and too revolting to properly process together. An astonishing performance well worth seeing, The Nether could very soon be the reality in which we live, and the conversations that the audience will have after the performance could very well be the contextual framework that determines how our future will be.

Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes no intermission

The Nether plays through May 1, 2016 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company— 641 D Street NW in Washington DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 393-3939 or purchase them online.


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