Exploring real and imagined spaces in ‘The Nether’

Proceed with caution: the following review of Red Turnip Theater’s production of The Nether by Jennifer Haley contains spoilers. The show, directed by Ana Abad Santos, runs until April 9 at the Power Mac Center Spotlight Theater, Circuit Makati. Get tickets via redturnip.com.ph or ticketworld.com.ph.

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1. Real / “real”

Say I have a perverted fantasy: dismember a child after intercourse. I rewind the scene each night in my head. Can you call me a criminal?

Say, elsewhere, another person has mutilation fantasies, and we discover a place where the imagined briefly comes to life. There we meet to satisfy, consentingly, our darkest desires. Are we committing a crime?

That imagination and reality share the same space in the mind is the most appealing theme in Jennifer Haley’s sci-fi drama, The Nether. Simply, The Nether is virtual realm. Somewhere in it, businessman Sims (Bernardo Bernardo) has built the Hideaway, a pedophile-slash-ax-murderer’s playground, which superior coding enables a life-like experience (think Black Mirror’s San Junipero).

Detective Morris (Jenny Jamora) is out to get Sims, believing that his Hideaway is dangerous and immoral. For her, when people spend entire days in that space, talking, transacting, being — then it is as good as real. When the corporeal no longer matters, then the imagination must yield to governance. Thought is as good as deed.

Sims and Morris are on opposing sides of this beautiful existential discussion. Red Turnip’s delivery of Haley’s script, however, flows like a one-sided argument. The detective has been given the louder voice — literally, Jamora’s headstrong Morris is quite the nag. For all the horrors it’s supposed to present, what I fear is that the play inches towards the didactic. The audience isn’t given enough chance to savor the narrative’s moral ambiguity and empathize with a man who has created — at least in his judgment — a safe zone to practice the unsafe.

Bernardo Bernardo opposite Junyka Santarin: they play Sims and Iris, respectively in Red Turnip’s production of “The Nether.”

Meanwhile, so much weight is on the shoulders of Junyka Santarin (and alternate Alba Berenguer-Testa), who takes on the role of nine-year-old Iris. Her character demands innocence when everyone in the room knows that she is nothing but an old man’s avatar, controlled with malice. Santarin has to go beyond throwing lines, otherwise the show’s haunting moments fall flat.

Truth is the production appears to hold back from delivering the chills, and has somehow made it hard for viewers to care about the characters, despite strong performances from Bernardo and co-actors Bodjie Pascua and TJ Trinidad.

In a story that features blood-curdling sexual proclivities, the most transgressive idea is that love might actually exist underneath it all — and only in this virtual setting could that be possible: in the real world, a Sims and an Iris would never be together. I merely wish that these tensions between the real and the virtual, the corrupt and the tender have been more pronounced in the play.

Jenny Jamora as Detective Morris

2. The black box becomes the Hideaway

Red Turnip’s artistic team proves that limitation is the best friend of creativity. Floor area and budget constraints aside, set designer Ed Lacson and set stylist Marta Lovina manage to transform the very physical space, which is the black box theater into Haley’s electronic landscape. In the sound design department, Teresa Barrozo works her magic. Her background music is just how we like it: not heard but felt.

But it is John Batalla’s lighting that serves as the vehicle that brings the audience into the future. The intersecting lines drawn onto the stage, the colors that wash the actors’ face — these details delight the eye as much as they enhance narration.

Science fiction is barely explored in theater, and Red Turnip has chosen an exciting material from the genre to close its fourth season. If you leave the show feeling as if a dormant part of yourself has woken up, then The Nether has done its job.