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Desire and its darker cousins in Red Turnip Theater’s ‘The Nether’

Jenny Jamora takes on the lead role of detective Morris. Investigating and intending to shut down the Hideaway, Morris confronts her own past and her desires. Photo by Jaypee Maristaza

Perhaps you’d like to start with the axe?” asks a little girl in the world of The Nether.

A noir sci-fi play written by American playwright Jennifer Haley, Red Turnip Theater’s season-ender is a tree-less, sky-less world where some souls have migrated from their bodies, and into the dark Cloud that is the Nether. There, in the virtual Victorian-themed haven called the Hideaway, little identical-looking girls indulge their visitors for a bit of fun. Wines are available, trees are everywhere, and pedophilia is a welcome fetish.

With a set designed by Ed Lacson, the only real world we see is an interrogation room, and the lush Eden of the hideaway presents a colorful foil to its dystopia.

“I was always entranced with the staircase,” says director Ana Abad Santos of the Hideaway’s design. “It was a reflection of the old days. An elaborate staircase is very indulgent, very mysterious, and very frightening. I don’t know one horror film that didn’t show a staircase. It’s always going to somewhere unknown, whether it’s going down to the basement, or going to the attic.”

Running on Fridays to Sundays until April 9, the play plunges headlong into fantasy’s darker regions. Where so-called real things decay and the virtual world is one seductive simulacrum, detective Morris (Jenny Jamora) interrogates two mainstays of the Hideaway: its proprietor Sims (Bernardo Bernardo) who created a pedophile’s utopia to protect real children from perversion, and the mild-mannered science teacher Doyle (Bodjie Pascua), its most obsessed visitor who wants to migrate entirely to the Nether.

“What people in the play don’t seem to understand is that he is actually protecting them by creating a world where they can do whatever they want to do without hurting anyone,” says Bernardo of his character, Sims, who they creepily call “Papa.” “He’s a creator, and all he can do is to create a place where he can be his effing self.”

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Through its characters, the play triggers a cerebral series of moral questions: Is the virtual world free of apparent consequence? Does living our twisted tendencies online keep them from occurring in real life? And more disturbingly as the play progresses: Is innocence and Eden a lost world or our own creation?

“Our objective as actors is how to make it as real as possible,” says Pascua. “The characters are human. The challenge for us is how to make it truthful.”

In the play, Iris (Alba Berenguer-Testa / Junyka Santarin) — the girl who entertains the Hideaway’s visitors like Mr. Woodnut (TJ Trinidad) — is less like a provocative Eve than the pure, innocent embodiment of Eden. Each character in The Nether is drawn to Iris, feebly wanting her or wanting to create her. 

While the harmless lust for innocence remains the driving force behind the Hideaway, the real person behind Iris’ avatar presents something more tender and infinitely more disturbing. It’s in The Nether that tragic human love, loneliness and longing are fleshed out at the core of sexual pleasure. Blind purity becomes just as disturbing as perversion, or there are moments when the play argues they’re one and the same.

“What’s more unsettling (here) is what our world can be, rather than what the internet can offer,” says director Ana Abad Santos. “There’s the real world that we’ve forgotten about: the humanity and the environment that we just keep on destroying.”

Real things — Red Turnip’s play seems to say — are neither in the bleak, prison-like real world, nor in the elaborate Victorian virtual realm. The world is one entire nightmare and fantasy apparatus. And yet when Iris cries near the climax of the play — not like a betrayed lover, but just a lost, abandoned child — fantasies collapse, and so do lives built around them. What’s real, at least in The Nether, is not the space or the place, but only the urgency of emotion, that wild poignant undercurrent running through both the man and the machine-like, the real and the virtual, the old lonely man and the little crying girl.

While the entire play is meant to be thought-provoking, the ending renders the most tender and tragic moment, by simply presenting things as they are behind the filter.

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The Nether runs all weekends until April 9 at the new Power Mac Center Spotlight in Ayala Mall Circuit Makati. Tickets are available at www.ticketworld.com.ph, Ticketworld store outlets, and at www.redturnip.com.ph.

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