Theater Tech: SF Playhouse Scales the Heights with The Nether

Kris Neely

These commentaries are primarily focused on the production, direction, and technical aspects of theater and performing arts.

In the movie G.I. Jane, one of the characters says, “It’s like having sex in a car crash!” That’s what experiencing SF Playhouse’s production of The Nether felt like to this reviewer. 

The play, written by Jennifer Haley and winner of the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn prize, is brilliant, tricky, multi-leveled, well-honed, and hits the subject of imagination, the perils of law enforcement in a cyber-centric world, and the psychological cage match between desire and decorum that is the human condition like a ton of intellectual bricks. As produced by SF Playhouse and helmed by veteran director and SF Playhouse artistic director Bill English, the play is beautifully rendered, visually stunning, and a technical triumph.  

The Nether’s press release describes the play as, “A new virtual wonderland [that] provides total sensory immersion. Just log in, choose an identity, and indulge your every whim. But when a young detective uncovers a disturbing brand of entertainment, she triggers a dark battle over technology and human desire. The Nether is both serpentine crime drama and haunting sci-fi thriller that explores the consequences of living out our private dreams.”

Michael Billington’s review of The Nether for London’s Guardian adds: “At the heart of Jennifer Haley's play…lies a serious question: do sexual and violent images have consequences? To put it more bluntly, would the creation of a digital…fantasy-world incite or suppress socially damaging desires?” 

I would add to Mr. Billington’s comments by asking: what of the people who create and trade and live in such a world? Are we safer when they are in that world, their world—or in ours? That is the darkest question that lies at the raw-nerve core of The Nether.

At the end of the play, the audience left SF Playhouse reflecting on the alternate lives of the future presented in the show. They looked happy and thoughtful, but is it because they liked what the play had to say or because they wanted that future for themselves today, to be fellow travelers on a Twilight Zone-esque voyage into the darker recesses of their (and our) imaginations? After all, the audience of The Nether, through the voyeuristic act of watching the play are complicit in its story, feeding it and making it possible.

In summary, SF Playhouse has selected a brilliant play in The Nether, cast it with distinction, presented it with near technical precision, and made it one of the most important theater experiences of the decade. The Nether at SF Playhouse is one of the must see plays of 2016.

Scenic Design
In a word, Nina Ball’s set design is brilliant. After more than 30 years in the theater, I’ve never seen a stage turntable used to better effect.  Essentially putting a four-sided set on a turntable, each facet of Ms. Ball’s design is unique, expertly rendered, and visually stunning. From Victorian parlor and bedroom to police interrogation cell to a grove of trees, this set design is a master’s thesis. (Score: 9.25/10)

Set Construction
Production manager Maggie Koch and her team have set the bar to Olympian heights with their craft and the execution of this set. Exceptionally well-rendered seams, joins, and interfaces between floor and set, walls and door flats, etc., all earn full marks for SF Playhouse’s technical team, production assistants and intern, carpenters, electricians, and scenic painter (a superb, nuanced, and well-finished job by Karen McNulty). The set construction and finish work on this show will be the envy of theaters of any budget across the Bay Area.

The set construction renders an almost unmatched attention to detail representing an envious set budget…almost because while the use of blackouts between set changes is required for this show, a little more strategic (and less obvious) use of glow tape might have catapulted this set construction to a near perfect score. A pitch-black stage and theater are effective aspects of this play, which depends on keeping the audience’s mind locked into the narrative and not wondering what all the little glowing strips are as scenes change. (Score: 9.25/10)

Stage Management
The stage management for this show could serve as an MFA course at any university. The cues are tight, the scene changes as crisp as safely possible with a stage turntable the size of the one in use, and the quick costume changes admirable in the extreme. Congratulations to stage manager Jamie Mann and stage management intern Keili Elliott. (Score: 9.75/10)

Theodore Hulsker’s sound design is largely well selected and executed. The crisp, staccato music that ends with abrupt lights-up works particularly well on the scene changes. One note: the music used for the scene changes works best when there is enough clearly articulated bass and sub-bass (60-20 Hz) to cover the sound of the turntable moving. The mix is good on the early scene changes but a couple changes later in the show are done with lighter music, rendering the turntable audible. Again, this is a play that depends on keeping the audience’s mind locked into the narrative and not wondering: What is that sound? at the turntable moving.   (Score: 8/10)

Jacquelyn Scott’s props are just sublime, well executed, and appropriate in every particular. The choice of the toy rabbit is particularly period and endearing, if also heart-rending.  (Score: 9/10).

Brooke Jennings delivers an almost flawless ensemble. The period clothes are particularly well rendered. Other theaters should take note of how the costumes for this show looked the part: crisp, ironed, well fitted, and color coordinated. With the abundance of outlets for costume designers in the Bay Area, getting the fit and look right, as in this production, should be a reflex.

A couple small notes: the watch worn by Morris was a bit distracting. It looked too big on her wrist and too K-Mart Timex. Also, the shoes and hose worn by Ms. Qian also seemed oddly out of character. (Score: 9/10) 

Having competed against Bill English in the past for best director honors, I know first-hand that Mr. English is a consummate, spirited, well-trained professional. His direction of The Nether is sure-handed, nuanced, and steady. 

Opening night jitters jostled the play’s pace in spots, but Mr. English gives his cast plenty of room to use the sub-text of pauses and silence—a somewhat scarce skill in directors of any level—to add dramatic impact and tension when needed. Character movement was well orchestrated, intentional, and justified. Stage pictures were solid, yet thankfully avoided the overdone, bilateral symmetry leaned on so heavily by lesser directors. Beat management and changes were largely crisp and well-articulated. Dialog rhythms—a trickier issue in this play than one might first suspect—were smart. Entrances, often a weak aspect of today’s theater, were confident, realistic, and notable for not disturbing the flow of the show by being too loud, prominent, or lengthy. A bit more use of the apron might have pulled the audience even deeper into the play.  (Score: 9.25/10)

Michael Oesch’s lighting design was superb and used both light and shading well. Light balance across the acting area—and the lack of the dreaded dim spots between lights—was the most consistent of any play I’ve seen in some time. Colors were well selected and tasteful.   (Score: 9/10)

Casting was largely solid. Warren David Keith was of particular note, handling the tricky character of Sims with aplomb. Sims is full of layers and justifications that so often trip up less experienced actors who don’t have the experience or talent to make acting choices that sync with the scene, text, emotion, and arc of the beat at hand. Mr. Keith has no such limitations. 

Similarly, Carmen Steele (who shares the role of Iris in rep with Matilda Holtz) is a talent of the first order. Iris requires some damn difficult acting in what is being said (and why) as well as what is being portrayed (and why). Most theaters would have cast a diminutive adult as Iris due to the role’s complex (and highly adult) requirements. Kudos to SF Playhouse for not doing so. I cannot commend enough the acting craft displayed by Carmen Steele.

Josh Schell as Woodnut was a study in acting and character strata. A fine, noteworthy, and understated performance. Few actors can handle the arc of a character like Woodnut. Mr. Schell rocked the part.

I have some reservations about the performance of Ruibo Qian. Obviously a talented, well-educated, and trained thespian, I nevertheless did not buy Qian as Detective Morris. The performance felt forced, particularly in the opening interrogation scenes when Detective Morris has Mr. Sims dead-to-rights. I never saw the utter contempt nor the cat playing with a mouse dominance those scenes demanded.   (Score: 9/10)

Overall Production

From the book to the direction to the ensemble acting to the achievements of the artistic production staff, SF Playhouse sets the bar high with their production of The Nether.  (Score: 9.5/10)
Reviewer Score

SF Playhouse has selected a brilliant play in The Nether, cast it with distinction, presented it with near technical precision, and made it one of the most important theater experiences of the decade. (Score: 9.50/10)

Overall Theater Tech Score: (100.5/110) The Nether at SF Playhouse is one of the must see plays of 2016.

The Nether by Jennifer Haley
Directed by Bill English
Through March 5, 2016
SF Playhouse 450 Post St. 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA
Tickets available online at
Run time: 80 minutes with no intermission.

Kris Neely is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics’ Circle and an award-winning stage director. In 2013 Neely earned an SFBATCC Best Director award for Lend Me a Tenor (Ross Valley Players) and his direction of Leading Ladies for Novato Theater Company was listed as one of the 10 Best Plays of 2014 in the North Bay by the Marin Independent Journal newspaper. He was also nominated for a 2013 Outstanding Production Shellie Award for directing A Case of Libel for the Pittsburg Community Theater.
Mr. Neely’s blogs on theater and performing arts are found online at Aisle Seat Reviews, For All Events (, Marin Onstage (, and nationally at OnStage (