Chicago Theatre Review
Iris in Wonderland
The Nether – A Red Orchid Theatre
January theatre seems to be off to a gloomy, depressing start. There are a number of productions currently playing around Chicago that offer controversial, thought-provoking themes and fascinating characters and storylines. However the entertainment provided by many of these plays do little to lift audiences out of their winter doldrums. There’s an abundant lack of light, warmth, color, humor or anything resembling a feel good moment. Jennifer Haley’s award-winning 80-minute drama, directed with sharp clarity and imagination by Karen Kessler, is one such play.
This is a creepy, disturbing, unrelenting, yet thought-provoking drama that’s set in the very near future. The internet has now expanded to become a world beyond being simply a repository for information. It’s become The Nether, an endless environment offering unlimited virtual playgrounds. It gives individuals the opportunity to totally experience one’s fantasies. All the senses are replicated and a person can exist in this other world as an avatar, a character of his or her own creation.
A man named Sims (in a strong performance by Guy Van Swearingen), seated in a chair under a blinding spotlight, is being interrogated by Detective Morris (played with dauntless determination by Ashely Neal). Squirming with discomfort, yet trying to hide just how much Morris is getting to him, Sims’ only request is to go home. However, if he does, he’s told, he’ll lose all access to the virtual world that he’s created. Morris challenges Sims with how he can spend 16 hours out of every day in this unreal, imaginary realm. His response is that those willing to give themselves to their fantasies in The Hideaway can do whatever they want, for as long as they choose, and without any consequences. This includes becoming an avatar of choice in cyberspace and being allowed to engage in perverted sexual acts and violence with perfectly designed children. It’s not real and there’s no laws against it…yet.
Residing in this nightmare Wonderland is Iris, a perfect, pretty nine-year-old Victorian-costumed child, who appears in control of her domain, yet is also a victim. She’s the favored creation of Sims and is at his command. There are other children, but we only meet Iris and another avatar visitor named Mr. Woodnut (a charming Steve Schine). Back in the interrogation room we’re introduced to a retired schoolteacher named Doyle (in a riveting performance by Doug Vickers). More cannot be said about his character except to say that what the theatergoer sees and hears in the Nether isn’t always the truth.
This disturbing play isn’t for every taste. It will haunt audiences long after the climax, but it also raises many issues about our limitless imagination, especially as man continues to explore and plumb the internet. Jennifer Haley’s drama explores the premise that there’s no law governing the pretend world of the Nether, as long as no real person is involved in any virtual crimes. But what is not governed by law in this smarmy Wonderland might be disgusting and immoral to many of us. What we discover in this dark, gloomy adult play, enhanced by an imaginative scenic, sound and lighting design by John Musial, Joe Court and Mike Durst, is creepy and difficult to witness.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 26-March 12 by A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 312-943-8722 or by going to www.aredorchidtheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.