Review: The Nether (Red Turnip Theater)
I keep writing reviews, then entering long hiatuses. Ah, well, I still maintain and keep the URL, so I haven’t quite given up yet.
That said, if there’s a “home” theatre company I have, it’s Red Turnip, and I love going back to theatre by watching one of their shows. That said, as always, let’s start with the usual caveat: having worked with them before, the review can rightfully be called biased. Take the following with a grain of salt, and spoilers below. You have been warned.
The Play: “The Nether”, by Jennifer Haley. This play marks the first time the company performed works solely of female writers for a season.
The Plot: In the near future, the internet has grown into a larger, more immersive virtual reality space called “the Nether,” where users can log-in and assume the form of avatars whose identities are built to match their specifications. However, this freedom comes with darker practices. When Detective Morris investigates an online Hideaway where pedophiles can indulge in their fantasies, she hauls in its creator for questioning. It is in that interrogation where they unravel questions on ethics and identity, and ultimately, posit the context of what is real, and what is imaginary in a life lived online.
Direction by Ana Abad Santos.
The Cast: Bernardo Bernado (Sims/Papa), Jenny Jamora (Morris), Bodjie Pascua (Doyle), TJ Trinidad (Woodnut), Alba Berenguer-Testa (Iris), who alternates with Junyka Santarin (Iris).
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. No intermission.
The Venue: Venue: The Power Mac Center Spotlight, a black box theater at the 2nd floor of Circuit Makati.
Maybe it was a good thing to watch Black Mirror before trekking to Circuit; the mind was prepped, acclimated to a climate for quiet science fiction. Or maybe it was not: the mind had expectations, an appetite whetted for what science fiction should be. I’m somewhat convinced this is a show that one needs to watch during the kind of mood that preempts a hearty Netflix binge. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.
Let’s get to the point; the performance I saw was unwieldy. Some performances were gingerly handled, like they had a vague idea of what it was that they were doing. That’s the problem with science fiction: unfamiliarity with this genre in particular means missing what makes the narrative compelling.
Jamora, at least, knows what she’s doing. Her Morris is driven, compelled even, to get to the bottom of things as good investigators are wont to do. The leather jacket and the short hair suit her, and Jamora uses this to good effect to harden the character into someone more relentless than is good for her.
Trinidad, serving as Jamora’s online alter-ego is quiet, thoughtful, and goodness, romantic. This makes it a bit confusing, since it is out of step with Jamora’s strut towards justice. His performance is probably the result of having the great majority of his scenes with Santarin. More on that later.
Bernardo and Pasqua are old hats at this, and maybe, just a little bit too old; both veteran actors’ feel a bit insubstantial. Bernardo’s pedophile pimping doesn’t quite have that element of a hard vector, that obsession that shows a mind capable of programing a virtual world so interactive that no one would like to leave. Pascua, meanwhile, is a bit of sniveler; his life’s complaint isn’t made clear in the show until its final dramatic moment, so the performance is a bit of a long burn.
Santarin is a young performer who needs to learn how to appreciate the genre. Her performance is innocent, sweet; saccharine even. And this is where it ends, and where appreciation for the genre should begin—but it does not. As Iris, the adult masking as a child to give pedophiles online pleasure, Santarin’s performance is the lynchpin that needs to serve everyone’s performances together. She is to serve as both victim and villain; an enabler to vice and the instrument to the virtue of justice. Yet in her performance, one only sees the former of either service fulfilled. She is too sweet, too childlike, and has none of the iron that makes for a compelling trope of science fiction—the small female abundant in power that enables the very best and worst in us. Santarin’s Iris lacks agency, and it’s this lack that waters down the performance of every member of the cast. It is the actions of Iris—her agency in play—that motivates the narrative to the point that every character is affected by her. So why strip the character of agency, by imposing her innocence?
It’s a lot to say of a young performer, yet those are the demands of the material. The reality of the internet today (and one would dare say, that of the Nether later on) insists that children be made aware of threats. The further, unspoken reality of the internet is this: that children can be threatening, especially when guided by an adult mind. The character of Iris needs to embody this reality. (If possible, I will see, and note later on, if there’s a difference between Berenguer-Testa’s performance with that of Santarin’s.)
This brings me back to the statement made earlier: one needs to be in the mood for a Netflix binge to watch this iteration of The Nether. It’s the mood that is primed for the genre. On one hand, it means that the plot of the show is easier to follow and appreciate. On the other hand, it also means that show’s faults are highlighted.
Candor compels me to admit that it’s not a bad play per se; the material is exceptional. What it does need, in my opinion, is the activation of one character’s agency to make the show more commensurably more powerful.