Lila Schaffner and Neil Brewer | Courtesy of Liminal Playhouse
Lila Schaffner and Neil Brewer | Courtesy of Liminal Playhouse

Four generations of Louisville performers will be on stage this weekend when Liminal Playhouse opens its second season with the cyber thriller “The Nether.”

“It takes place in the near future, what (playwright) Jennifer Haley describes as ‘soon,’” says director Tony Prince, who also serves as the artistic director of Liminal. “The Nether is what the internet has become. The world itself is a ruin.”

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Tony Prince

People have started living large portions of their lives in the virtual world. It’s a premise one might expect to see attached to a big summertime action thriller. In fact, Steven Spielberg’s next film, “Ready Player One,” shares some broad story strokes. But on stage, the action won’t focus on huge robots or virtual spaceships; it zooms in on the interactions between the characters. In the virtual world of the Nether, people aren’t who they seem and identity is changeable.

Prince spoke with Insider about the play and brought along actor Paul Lenzi, who portrays one of the show’s main protagonists. This isn’t the first time the two have worked together, but it’s been a while. Like 40 years.

“(Lenzi) was my first acting teacher,” says Prince. “It’s very gratifying to be able to work with Paul in this capacity after all these years. It’s very … I don’t wanna say closing the circle, because hopefully this is just the beginning.”

“Tony was one of my students,” recalls Lenzi. “He was so eager and focused. It was so great. We haven’t been in touch for years, but I do read about him in the paper all the time and keep up with him.”

Lenzi has been pretty busy in the meantime, building Blue Apple Players, a theater company that toured a variety of shows to local schools. He stayed so busy, in fact, he remained off stage for 30 years. Now Blue Apple has merged with Walden Theatre to form Commonwealth Theatre Center (CTC), and Lenzi says it’s gone so well he finally has time to act again.

“I have a little more time,” he says. “Alison (Huff, managing director of CTC) is great. I just love this woman. I couldn’t be happier.”

In an email, Huff credited Walden’s Charlie Sexton with the initial idea to get Lenzi back on stage at CTC, where Lenzi performed in “Uncle Vanya” and “Misalliance” with CTC’s faculty company.

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Paul Lenzi

In addition to loving being back on stage, Lenzi also gushed about his co-stars, including 12-year-old Lila Schaffner. Lenzi and Prince both work with youngsters in their day jobs, Lenzi at CTC and Prince as a teacher at Atherton High School.

There is something delightful about the idea that Lenzi met Prince as an acting teaching when Prince was 12, and now they are introducing another young artist, who is 12, to the Louisville scene. When you add in other cast members like Rick Kautz, Vanessa Miller and Neil Brewer, some of whom are in their 20s and 30s, you have about four generations of Louisville actors on stage together.

Prince says that inter-generational aspect drew him to “The Nether.”

“I love that the characters have a broad age range,” says Prince, contrasting “The Nether” with plays whose characters are all only a few years apart in age.

Despite the feel-good story behind the scenes, don’t expect good vibes from the play.

“The onstage action … is written as a suspense thriller in some ways,” explains Prince. “It’s not chronological exactly, but there’s a progression, and there are revelations … I remember reading it like a page-turner the first time.”

That action is split between the real world and the virtual one. The online world is represented by a place called The Hideaway, a virtual Victorian world with the real world portions of the story happening in a blank interrogation room.

TheNetherAdForEmailThe cyber aspects placed side by side with the Victorian era ought to excite steampunk aficionados. Lenzi speaks to the crossover appeal of the play. “It has the potential to draw a great audience, the theater people who love great drama, (but also) the techies who love the internet.”

Prince suggests the drama will appeal to committed role players, whose LARPing experience in some ways mirrors the dual nature of the reality presented by “The Nether.”

The play premiered in L.A. in 2013 and has been gaining in popularity, with multiple productions nationally and in London. Prince is excited to bring the play to Louisville.

“We’re really happy to be the first people in the region to do this,” he says.

“The Nether” runs Sept. 2-11 at the Henry Clay Theatre, 604 S. Third St. Tickets are $18 in advance or $20 at the door. You can also buy a subscription for Liminal’s full three-show season for $48 and save some dough.

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