Mad Horse Theatre prides itself on staging plays that make people grapple with ethical and moral questions. “The Nether,” opening this week, may be the bravest play the theater has produced.
Playwright Jennifer Haley’s dark sci-fi crime drama focuses on the Nether, a network of virtual reality realms where users choose an identity to pursue their desires. One of the realms is the Hideaway, where pedophiles lure children. The action in this play involves a police investigation of the Hideaway, and the question it raises is how we, as a technological society, distinguish between fantasy and reality.
“This is the kind of play we are supposed to do,” said Mad Horse artistic director Christine Louise Marshall. “We like to present theater that messes with your mind and makes you think. We want people to walk out of here thinking about what they just saw and asking themselves questions. We want you to walk out of here feeling something has changed.”
The play debuted in California in 2013 and showed in New York two years later. Writing in the New York Times, reviewer Ben Brantley described it as “as smart as it is unsettling.” The central character is a young girl, played in the Mad Horse production by 12-year-old Maiya Koloski.
Men covet her for their fantasies, and although nothing graphic is portrayed on stage in this production, the subject may make people squirm. The one-act play, which runs about 80 minutes, is intended for mature audiences.
Koloski, who attends the Breakwater School and began acting when she was 6, understands why people think “The Nether” is “dark and dismal, but there is a lot of heart in it,” she said. “It’s about loneliness, and that is something that many people have felt and can relate to. I think seeing the play would totally change someone’s perspective. It’s just a beautiful story.”
Others in the cast are Mad Horse members Janice Gardner and Nick Schroeder, with guest actors Paul Haley and Tim Ferrell. Haley is a regular on the Portland theater scene, performing with American Irish Repertory Ensemble and Good Theater, among others. Ferrell is best known for his coaching of stand-up comedians and TedX presenters and has produced plays for the PortFringe Festival.
Koloski was born into the theater tradition. Her mother, Stacey, is a member at Mad Horse and encouraged her to audition for this role. This is her Mad Horse debut. “I just really like playing other characters, especially when they are things I don’t know a lot about. It’s very interesting to me,” she said. “Up until I was about 10, I had only done musicals. But I discovered that I really like acting. I like singing as well, but acting is a little more fun.”
Schroeder isn’t worried if people find the subject of “The Nether” offensive. “ ‘The Nether’ is interesting because it ostensibly deals with one of the last taboos in American culture, but the world it’s framed in is basically already here. People are constantly defining and balancing their notions of freedom and morality,” he said. “I don’t think people have the luxury of pretending these questions aren’t part of daily life. The internet already is an unregulated space where entrepreneurship and inquiry moves faster than governing laws, regulations or morality. There are a lot of hurt, lonely people in the country looking for community and intimacy online because it’s harder to find in the real world, and internet users young and old have to make moral decisions all the time about how to find that intimacy.”
The play is set in the near future. In the script, the setting is described simply as “soon.” It won the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and is the second play written by Haley that Mad Horse has produced. In 2010, it staged Haley’s “Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom.”
MAD HORSE THEATRE’S ‘THE NETHER’
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sundays; through Feb. 5
WHERE: Mad Horse Theatre, 24 Mosher St., South Portland
TICKETS & INFO: $23 adults, $20 seniors; pay-what-you-can performances Thursday, Sunday and Jan. 26; 207-747-4148 or madhorse.com