"The Nether" Review – Jump Right In

Speaking with a good friend and theatre buff about how much I enjoyed the Bay Area premiere of “The Nether” by Jennifer Haley, Directed by Bill English at the San Francisco Playhouse through March 5, I was surprised by her response.  She had read all of the reviews in local papers and although the reviews were glowing, she was so put off by the topic the play deals with; she made a decision not to see it.  What a mistake.  She will be missing a production that is definitely theatre at its best if she doesn’t change her mind.


The cast and creative tem of The Nether


The World Premiere of The Nether was produced by Center Theatre Group/Kirk Douglas Theatre, and Michael Ritchie, Artistic Director, in Los Angeles, CA in 2013. It opened at the Royal Court in July 2014 and immediately transferred to the West End. Its New York engagement at MCC, which premiered in February 2015, was extended three times.


Ruibo Qian as Morris


Playwright Jennifer Haley’s work delves into ethics in virtual reality and the impact of technology on our human relationships, identity, and desire. She won the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for her play, "The Nether", produced in Los Angeles, off-Broadway, and on London’s West End and has written many plays and won many awards.  In “The Nether”, these elements come together with lyrical language and scenes that will make your head spin.


Carmen Steele as Iris and Warren David Keith as Papa

Bill English (Director/Artistic Director), an accomplished singer, pianist, composer, and co-founder of San Francisco Playhouse has spent his life producing works of art. In its 13 years, it has grown from a storefront to a major regional theater company, with a 6-play main stage series, a 2-play World Premiere series, an education program and a New Works program that has commissioned 10 playwrights. Bill’s vision includes making bold choices and taking artistic risks, and he has been rewarded with multiple nominations and numerous awards for acting, directing, sound and set design.  In this production of “The Nether”, not only is the direction outstanding but the set brought gasps from the audience.


Louis Parnell as Doyle is questioned by Ruibo Qian as Morris about his dealings in the Nether

Interestingly, this play resulted from Jennifer Haley writing about “what you hate” as described in an interview with Miranda Rizzolo.  This was advice Haley received from her mentor, Paula Vogel at Brown University.  Two years of work that resulted in “The Nether” began with this idea.  In this play Haley confronts, child porn, homosexuality, violence, and other fantasies, many of which one feels forbidden to even think about.  Iris, a young girl reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland is the centerpiece of the play.  This role of requires the innocence of a child combined with the sophistication and seductiveness of a woman of the night.  And there is violence. 


Warren David Keith as Papa and Matilda Holtz as Iris in the Hideaway, a realm of the Nether

In answer to my friend’s question of how it was that this play could present these topics and keep the audience from utter disgust- the acting was riveting, the sets were surprising, the costumes were in keeping with the story, the sound effects were masterful as was the lighting and the theatre was the perfect venue. The audience sat glued to their seats, entranced, caught in the science fiction mystery that questions whether the virtual world can and should be policed, whether one's thoughts should be invaded and controlled.



The cast of The Nether

The San Francisco Playhouse cast for this Bay Area premiere includes Matilda Holtz, Warren David Keith*, Louis Parnell*, Ruibo Qian*, Carmen Steele, and Josh Schell with Bill English directing.


Iris is played by Matilda Holtz and Carmen Steele on alternate nights. The night this reviewer attended, Carmen Steele was performing.  She expertly captured the nuances of the role, confidently taking charge of the stage.  The audience was captivated by her if audience comments following the show tell their story.  And then, at this discussion, this 12 year old joined the cast answering questions about how she felt about her role, looking like any junior high school kid and then she headed home to do her homework.  Stunning. Come and find out if a virtual world is more seductive than the one you might be living in, in the future.


Carmen Steele as Iris in a virtual forest


For more information and ticket visit the The San Francisco Playhouse box office at 415-677-9596, or The San Francisco Playhouse website


Photos by Jessica Palopoli




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