Debate has raged for years about virtual violence. Series like "Doom" and "Grand Theft Auto" have sparked outrage for what they allow the players to do in the game world.
What if the level of immersion was ramped up to the point that you couldn't tell the difference between reality and the virtual world? What to make of these actions is at the heart of "The Nether," a disturbing new drama that opened this weekend at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis.
"The Nether" marks the welcome return to the Twin Cities of director Casey Stangl, whose tightly focused work deepens Jennifer Haley's already nightmarish script.
Sometime in the future, two things are true: The world is such a mess that even the vast majority of trees are gone, and the virtual world of the Nether can be just as real as the one outside your door.
Students go to virtual schools. Business is conducted in electronic spaces. And the entertainment options make the PlayStation 4 look like "Pong."
In one of these virtual spaces, the Hideaway, clients can indulge a very specific kind of fantasy involving children. None of this is played out on stage, but these acts would make the men pariahs to even the most hardened criminals.
Things in the Hideaway are not quite what they seem, and the creator claims that the virtual space gives his customers a way to play out their urges without harming anyone in the real world. Think of it as a completely immersive "World of Warcraft" programmed by the Marquis de Sade.
The authorities of the Nether beg to differ. The play is split between the interrogations of the creator, Sims (Stephen Yoakam), and a frequent user, Doyle (Craig Johnson), by a shadowy agent named Morris (Mo Perry); and moments within the Hideaway, where Sims — known as Papa — oversees his Victorian nightmare with his favorite, Iris (Ella Freeburg), and a new guest, Woodnut (JuCoby Johnson).
As the play progresses, the questions become more than about criminal, horrible acts committed in virtual spaces. The Hideaway affects all of the users, with Doyle even planning to leave the waking world completely behind to live only as an avatar.
Stangl and scenic designer Lee Savage offer a distinct line between the two worlds. Reality is stark, with a black stage and bare light on the darkly clothed figures and their flickering video reflections. The Hideaway is a lush place, filled with poplar trees and Victorian comforts. The edges, however, are all mirrored, hinting at the programmed reality behind the scenes.
The actors, especially Perry and Yoakam, expertly play these moments, showing the true terrors that lie within both the real and the digitally created worlds they inhabit.
Ed Huyck is a Twin Cities theater critic.