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Friday, January 15, 2016

Actor Louis Parnell plays out our virtual insanity in The Nether

Posted By on Fri, Jan 15, 2016 at 11:00 AM

click to enlarge Louis Parnell co-stars in sci-fi crime drama The Nether, which opens Jan. 19 at San Francisco Playhouse. - JEFFREY ADAMS
  • Jeffrey Adams
  • Louis Parnell co-stars in sci-fi crime drama The Nether, which opens Jan. 19 at San Francisco Playhouse.

In San Francisco, one can easily imagine a future where everyone is completely immersed in technology, because it's already happening all around us.  Whether on smartphones or desktops, playing video games or checking social media, emailing or texting, it's clear that many of this city's denizens would rather be anywhere but here.  With the pervasiveness of virtual reality (VR) hardware — Google's Cardboard, Samsung Gear, and the soon-to-be-released Oculus Rift — soon they won't have to be. But is this obsession with immersive, lifelike, 3D virtual environments healthy? 

That's the question that playwright Jennifer Haley (Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom, Froggy) asks in her latest play The Nether, a sci-fi crime drama set in the not-so-distant future about a detective investigating a virtual reality site with questionable entertainment value. After playing in Los Angeles, New York and London, the award-winning play will have its regional premiere at San Francisco Playhouse on Jan. 19. Five-time BATCC award-winning actor Louis Parnell, who plays Doyle, a lonely VR enthusiast, in this production, spoke to SF Weekly about the play, living in the technical world and why theatre should continue to challenge audiences. 

How would you describe The Nether?

A little bit sci-fi, set in the near distant future and dealing with the world of virtual reality, The Nether's plot concerns a female detective who is investigating a man named Mr. Sims, who's also known as Papa, who has built this virtual reality site, which deals with pedophilia, trying to file criminal charges on him. The character I play, Doyle, is a customer who goes to the site, who has essentially gone bankrupt visiting the site so often. She's also investigating me, in regards to also finding information on how she can incriminate Papa. The scenes are divided between the detective investigating Sims and the investigator investigating my character and scenes at The Hideaway, where the actual site is.

What's The Hideaway like?

It is a Victorian site. Mr. Sims had everything in the site be Victorian, from the clothes to the furniture and little children, about 11 years old. There is Iris, a young girl in the site, and she's Papa's favorite girl. There's a young man named Woodnut, who becomes one of the guests. 

How did you get cast in the Doyle role?

I've worked at San Francisco Playhouse a lot. So after Bill English and his wife Susi Damilano, who run the San Francisco Playhouse, saw the play, they said, 'Oh, we've got the perfect part for you.' My character is the moral conscience of the piece. I'm basically a very nice person, and he's a very loving, kind person, who's unhappy with his circumstances in the real world and wants to cross over to the virtual world because he feels that life is better there. After I read it, I said, 'Yes,' of course. 

How is Bill English's production different than the previous three?

The set is going to be on a turntable, so in each of the various rooms, the turntable will turn. Apparently in New York, it was a problem in regards to the set that when they went into The Hideaway a little door opened and you saw what looked like a Victorian background. But they mostly played the scene in front of the room, whereas here we actually have five different sets that will rotate on the turntable. 

Also, I think Bill is trying to make this production more real and focused on the real-life relationships because he's very good at that, as opposed to it being just a stylistic piece.

What is The Nether saying about contemporary society?

It's where technology is going. It's the fact that people spend so much time in the technical world in virtual reality sites. Whether they're playing games or whether they're just going to different sites, it's happening more and more. I think where the author set this play in the near-distant future is actually right around the corner. Everybody on the street is glued to their smartphone and everyone's attention always seems focused on something that is in some sort of hardware rather than in day-to-day life. 

The play is probably going to upset some people because of the pedophile aspect and, of course, that does pertain to today because you always hear about these things happening. It always happens out there, but here it's a play where people go to a site. Because it's VR and you're going to deal with the children, it's not necessarily to just have sex with them. You can go in and torture and kill the children because it's not real and they resurrect immediately in front of you. It's like watching these violent games you watch on video that do bad things to children, but the creator justifies it that it's better than if it were happening in the real world. 

Is it important for theatre to challenge audiences?

I think so, because theatre really should reach out and touch you and affect you and make you think. I think theatre, especially when it takes you out of your comfort zone, really does make it more powerful to you. It really raises a lot of questions, which I think everyone in the audience is going to relate to. 

The Nether, Jan.19 - March 5, at San Francisco Playhouse, $20-$120, 450 Post St, 415-677-9596 or sfplayhouse.org.

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Joshua Rotter

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