‘The Nether’: The lines separating two worlds blur

Bob Mussett and Julia Talbot in “The Nether.” Photo: Jake Scalttreto

WATERTOWN – With virtual reality becoming an actual reality, we as a society are being asked to confront some uncomfortable questions about where technology may take us in the future.

What if our desires in this world run against the moral code, but we can take those same desires into an on-line world where the victim may just be a digital creature instead of a living, breathing human being? Is it still illegal and immoral?

The Flat Earth Theatre’s production of “The Nether” at the Mosesian Center for the Arts is a fresh, original, complex look at the issues surrounding our on-line and off-line lives – and what happens when the lines between the two worlds are blurred, and what we seek online would be illicit.

The netherworld, by popular definition, is a region thought to be beneath the surface of the world in many religions and mythologies; here it is lying just below or, if you wish, alongside our world.

Technology has the ability to fulfill deepest, darkest desires. “The Nether,” in Hailey’s telling, is a world that evolved from what we know as the Internet, allowing those willing to “cross over” into a world where the experience they have can scarcely be disconnected from what they perceive as reality.

The fantasy world is so exciting and vivid, and so different from their workaday lives and experiences, that is almost impossible to distinguish from the real thing. It begs the question: Is it real?

Detective Morris (Regine Vital) is conducting intense one-on-one interview with two men. She is tracking what she believes to be illegal activities involving Sims (Bob Mussett), who likes to call himself Papa, and runs an area of The Nether known as The Hideaway.

He is doing his best to shield from her view activities that may be immoral and illegal, a virtual reality where those so inclined can indulge in what appears to be fantasies involving pedophilia.

Morris urges him to reveal the location of the server that creates the world that Papa and his fellow travelers live in

She is also pumping a man named Doyle (Jeff Gill) for information on what he knows about The Hideaway, where he also seems to have been spending a great deal of time.

She pressures both men in different ways ,while noting Doyle is a an award-winning teacher who taught Sunday school and has a wife and daughter. Despite that, he seems puzzlingly unconcerned if details his on-line life were to get out.

The action moves back and forth between both worlds separated by a simple metal grid , one set a simple interrogation room and the other the sitting room of what appears to be a Victorian home.

How did Morris get the information she needed to interrogate suspects? Enter Woodnut (Arthur Gomez,) sent into The Hideaway to gather information on its operations. But is he doing research or getting off? What is the connection to Morris?

Julia Talbot is Iris, who in the Hideaway is a forever 12-year-old girl, coquettish and mum about things that happen between her and her “dates.”

If she is just a digital creation, we may reason, there is no real victim here. Or is there?

Iris, who professes top be in love with Papa, is also somewhat smitten with Woodnut and in their increasing time together they eventually engage in conduct that is even more dark and disturbing than the illicit sex.

Almost as disturbing, the word “love” will be featured prominently in many of the conversations, an odd juxtaposition given the subject matter, but Hailey is setting up for yet another fascinating question about the morality of what is going on.

Director Sarah Gazdowicz employs brisk pacing in steadily ratcheting up the tension as the characters move between the two worlds, as the lines between them become blurred.

Hailey’s plot will eventually take some dramatic twists and turns you may or may not see coming – no spoilers here — but wrapping up in a neat bow won’t be possible.

Both Mussett and Gazdowicz were part of Moonbox Productions’ award-winning cast in its production of “The 39 Steps” this season, and they have found themselves in another production that trumpets the fine work that many of Greater Boston’s fringe/small companies do.

The Nether” is a well-thought-out and constructed play, a thought-provoking look at what the future may hold for us. Can we harness what we have wrought, or will we be slaves to the wicked wonders of “The Nether?”

The Flat Earth Theatre production of “The Nether.” Play by Jennifer Haley. Directed by Sarah Gazdowicz. Staged by Flat Earth Theatre in the Black Box Theatre at the Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA, through June 23. flatearththeatre.com.