So many local theater companies venturing into spooky dystopic future space travel worlds of one kind of the other. Which ones are worth a journey into the black hole of local indie theater?
The least spacey of the local sci-fi journeys is Washington Ensemble Theatre’s unsettling look at a near future which involves an advanced form of virtual reality called THE NETHER which is creepy future world’s way of referring to a futuristic internet where you can virtually travel INTO digital worlds and interact with all your senses.
Naturally, humans being humans, this fantastic new technology very quickly becomes adapted for sexual purposes….would’t you want to toy with the idea of making sweet love with a digital version of your favorite Hemsworth Brother?
Of course there’s a dark side to this concept and this is the heart of The Nether’s story as they explore the controversy of “Is Pedophilic Sex Taboo If The Sex Isn’t Real?” In other words, if no actual children/minors are involved, is it morally or legally wrong to sexualize digital images of them?
Yeah..it’s THAT kind of Hot Topic play, which means it’s a “no go” for many people but The Nether isn’t a prurient lurid look at the subject. Jennifer Haley’s script is intelligent; she’s not writing a “pro-pedophilia” play here, but she is exploring an interesting moral question: if giving pedophiles access to artificially created images of children to satisfy their urges and it prevents them from actually sexually abusing REAL children, isn’t that a good thing?
But, if we’re to create lifelike entities in the virtual world and we imbue them with human needs and characteristics and even emotions, at what point do they cease being just objects and qualify as actual sentient beings, regardless of their mode of creation?
(The same question being pursued currently in HBO’s Westworld, actually…)
Like I stated…interesting ideas on the plate with The Nether as it centers on an admitted pedophile named Sims who is also a genius who has created the most realistic portal in the Nethersphere and one that features the sexual abuse (and worse) of minors. Sims has come under the scrutiny of the authorities and is repeatedly called in for questioning by an investigator named Morris who is determined to break Sims.
Morris is also interrogating an older man named Doyle who is a frequent visitor to Sims’ portal and desperately wants to become a permanent fixture IN that world, a new danger in a future where addiction to the delights of the Nether can lead to obsession and fatal consequences.
The play transverses back and forth between the sleek interrogation room in the real world and Sims’ fantasy world where his star attraction and favorite “daughter” is Iris, a sweetly loving 12 year old who dotes on Sims, calling him “Papa” but she’s a digital being also increasingly curious about the world in which they live which is largely due to the presence of a new visitor, a young man named Woodnut who finds himself distressingly attracted to Iris and this lifestyle.
There are numerous twists and turns in this story; not everyone is who they appear to be, but Ms Haley’s smart script is logical and fascinating and Bobbin Ramsey’s nuanced staging is thoughtful and respectful to the material and the difficult subject matter. The “back and forth” nature of the script is a bit off putting; there’s an excessive amount of changing back and forth which does become distracting on the 8th switch from one realm to the other.
As usual, WET has a very strong design aesthetic going on with The Nether with the very handsome and well tailored but every so slightly dystopic costumes by Jennifer Oaster as well as strong dramatic lighting by Ryan Dunn and moody sound design by Mariah Brougher. Tristan Roberson has designed a very attractive set (as well as the atmospheric projections in this production) but due to the back and forth nature of this play as I mentioned earlier, the good looking set doesn’t really aid those transitions as the actors have to lug set pieces on and off so many times over the course of the play. I love the look of this design but question its practicality for this particular production.
The ensemble of actors is strong here with fine work from Kevin Kelly as the questioning new visitor; Steven Sterne as the older man obsessed with this new world and Pilar O’Connell as the inquisitive inspector in charge of the investigation but the heart of the play is the unsettling relationship between Sims/Papa and his girl creation Iris and both veteran Seattle actor James Weidman and newcomer/high school student Gabriella O’Fallon are superb in these roles. Mr. Weidman has long been one of Seattle’s best actors; one of those actors that “in the know” theater nerds follow and admire. His commanding voice, grave demeanor and fatherly bearing are all assets here in a role that demands a patriarchal power and charisma that masks a man tormented and obsessed by his weakness.
And, Ms O’Fallon is a revelation in a role that demands a lot from a young actor…conveying emotions not only as a victim of horrible degradations but as a questioning new kind of entity is a complex thing to do. She plays the innocence of the character so naturally and benignly while having to perform abhorrent acts. The duality of the role is due to the script and Bobbin Ramsey’s direction but ultimately it rests on the shoulders of Ms O’Fallon and her superb performance.
A fascinating premise coupled with strong design/direction and some fantastic performances makes The Nether worth visiting, if only to further conversation about the issues it raises.
Review: The Nether by Jennifer Haley. Produced by Washington Ensemble Theatre. Directed by Bobbin Ramsey. Scenic and Projection Design by Tristan Roberson. Costume Design by Jennifer Oaster. Lighting Design by Ryan Dunn. Sound Design by Mariah Brougher. With Pilar O’Connell, James Weidman, Kevin Kelly, Steven Sterne, Gabriella O’ Fallon. Onstage at 12th Avenue Arts/Capitol Hill from April 27 to May 14, 2018.
Another deep and layered play with a future forward theme is PILGRIMS by Claire Kiechel, a new play produced by Forward Flux at West of Lenin in Fremont. But, this play is more of a space opera that centers on a couple who are stuck together on a very long interstellar voyage to a remote planet that has been colonized after a long war.
The male of the couple is a former soldier who is quite obviously suffering from PTSD…he’s anxious, twitchy and horrified to discover he must share his cabin with a rather shallow and chatty 16 year old girl who has essentially been banished to the colonies by a father eager to get rid of her. Originally only supposed to be confined to their quarters until they reach “altitude”, their confinement is extended when problems arise on the ship. Over the weeks that follow, with their only contacts being with each other and a friendly android named Jasmine, the two get to know each other…including secrets that both are hiding.
Pilgrims was a hard go for me at first…in the first few minutes of the 90 minute play, the female character (not named and listed as “Girl” in the program) begins babbling away and won’t shut up, much to the irritation of the “Soldier”…and, probably much of the audience as well. She’s mostly a babbling child and he’s a brooding lump so it’s a tough show to embrace. Really, only the amusing presence of Jasmine the bubbly android and her interactions with the pair, fuel much interest in the story…initially.
But, Pilgrims is one of those odd “sleeper” tales that quietly grows on you. Claire Kiechel’s script features some razor sharp dialogue and while the characters seem cliche and hackneyed at first, she carefully breaks down each of them and exposes some very interesting layers underneath that turn both of the characters from cardboard to flesh and blood. As the pair start to bond, truths are revealed from each character; the Girl isn’t quite who she says she is, and the Soldier reveals some disquieting revelations about his prior time on the planet and interactions with the natives of that world, who are more fluid than solid and how one female of that species changed his outlook on his mission.
It’s a complex show that gets at some chunky issues including colonialism and identity. AND, it’s also a relationship drama. AND, a play with a fun, interesting and also somewhat complicated android character in it. There’s a lot to chew on here mostly due to the script and Emily Penick’s careful staging. It’s not an easy show to direct, largely due to the claustrophobic confines of their “world’ a gorgeously designed space ship suite that Ms Penick also designed.
There’s also some sharp lighting and sound designs by Lily McLeod and Ryan Scott respectively plus Nova Dobrev’s fantastic costume design for the android. It’s a very professionally designed show and what you would expect from Forward Flux who are as devoted to design elements as they are to story choices and the casting of actors.
All three actors are strong here with Meghan Dolbey doing a fantastic job of playing all the different layers of the “Girl” who is a far more complicated character than the one you first meet. Chris Shea is also quite good as the moodily intense soldier and the pair have a great rapport with each other as they open up over the course of the journey the play takes.
Alaji Marie is a gem as the mostly realistic but slightly robotic android Jasmine. It’s technically a brilliant take on the character but there are also wonderful personal choices being made here by the actress that really give this character a lot of life. Pilgrims is worth the price of admission just for this character and Ms Marie’s very funny and charming performance.
It’s an interstellar super nova YES on Pilgrims, yet another challenging production from Forward Flux who have a history of producing these kinds of personal stories that resonate beyond just the surface relationships created by the characters.
Review: PILGRIMS by Claire Kiechel. Produced by Forward Flux Productions. Direction, Choreography and Scenic Design by Emily Penick. Costume Design by Nova Dobrev. Lighting Design by Lily McLeod. Projections Design by Joanna Aponte. Sound Design by Ryan Scott. With Meghan Dolbey, Alaji Marie, Chris Shea. Onstage at West of Lenin/Fremont from May 1 to May 19, 2018.
Finally, we have another space opera and this one is pretty much a real opera…well, a musical since there are scenes without the characters singing…but it’s mostly singing. It’s SILHOUETTE the new Scotto Moore musical at Annex, the home of the quirky, the unusual and the surreal. This time their challenge is to produce an a cappella musical about renegade women in space with magic powers who must confront their own former comrades to save their way of life from certain doom….with lots and lots of under supported singing along the way!
We’re going to be brief. Scotto Moore has written better/more charming/more clever plays at Annex (Duel of the Linguist Mages and Balconies to name two) and Silhouette is not going to rank in his pantheon of Greatest Works. There’s some charm in his tale of strong women (this space colony is devoid of men so we’re unsure where the babydaddies come from to aide the women in reproducing but it’s the future and they’ve apparently solved the age old problem of “sperm”…) being confronted by other strong women but it’s not that compelling and frequently it’s all a bit of a confusing muddle.
And, the songs, all by Mr. Moore, don’t help. There are a couple catchy tunes among the 19 or so numbers in this two act, overly long show but they mostly blur into one another. The sing songy nature of the a cappela (meaning no instrumental back up; just voices) songs and singing is….sleep inducing. And, not aided by the fact most of these performers aren’t strong enough singers to engage us for over two hours with their singing skills. The problem with a cappela singing is: it demands REALLY strong vocal gifts. It’s kind of like being a doctor…you want/need someone REALLY good at delivering your baby and not someone who’s kinda/sorta/maybe ok at it. Otherwise you end up with a baby with dents in its head or, in the case of a cappela musical theater, a tuneless out of tune musical.
There’s strong design elements in Silhouette; Annex is good at DIY theater making. It’s a handsome looking/sounding show especially the lighting design by Carolina Johnson and D.R. Amromin’s sound design.
There are strong performances from the two central characters here, Mandy Rose Nichols and Miranda Troutt, but the ensemble itself features a variety of different kinds of performances from actors of differing skill levels. There’s a lot of spirited camaraderie here but not a lot of cohesion.
Silhouette has some subtle charms as a piece of community theater, but, it’s not one I can recommend for anyone other than hardcore Annex/Scotto Moore/easy to please a cappela musical fans.
Review: Silhouette. Book/Music/Lyrics by Scotto Moore. Produced by Annex Theatre. Vocal Arrangements by Brian Kinyon & Scotto Moore. Directed by Eddie DeHais & Scotto Moore. Scenic Design by Eddie DeHais & Lenny Urbanowski. Lighting Design by Carolina Johnson. Costume Design by Fantasia Oslund & Keegan Wreden. Sound Design by D.R. Amromin. With Mandy Rose Nichols, Miranda Troutt, Arika Gloud, Aviona Rodriguez Brown, Emily Jo Testa, Grace Carmack, Shalonia Rosen, Alexei Cifrese, Brian Kinyon, Sam Ro, Stephanie Spoher, Emily Pike. Onstage at Annex Theatre from April 27 to May 19, 2018.