With the US government currently debating the use of force in yet another Middle Eastern conflict, the timing couldn’t have been more pertinent for this electrifying and disturbing psycho-drama. 9 Circles raises several unpleasant moral and political questions about the cost of US intervention in the Middle East. At the same time it also brings up universal matters regarding spirituality and atonement. The play is based on the epic poem Dante’s Inferno where the narrator takes a journey through the 9 layers of hell, but it is also based on a horrifying war-crime that actually occurred during the Iraq War.
On March 12, 2006, five American troops stationed at a dangerous traffic checkpoint area of Iraq known as the “Triangle of Death” entered the nearby home of a fourteen-year-old girl called Abeer Qasim Hamza. One of these soldiers was a young man named Steven Green. Green took Abeer’s parents and six-year-old sister into an adjoining room and shot them while two of his fellow soldiers raped Abeer. Then he entered the room where she was struggling, and raped and shot her. Afterwards he set her body on fire. They went on to blame the incident on Sunni insurgents until one of the men revealed the horrors to a therapist a week later. Green was honorably discharged from the army, supposedly for his mental condition, but really for the war-crime that the army didn’t want the public to know about.
The sickening details of this horrendous crime are similar, though not exactly, to those committed by our central character Daniel Reeves and his fellow soldiers in the play. The Reeves character in this play is based on the real life Steven Green. Reeves, just like Green, had been diagnosed with a mental condition called anti-social personality disorder. The disorder is characterized by an extreme inability of the brain to register or feel empathy for others. This lack of empathy is what most people would define as evil. It is alleged that the army knew of his disorder and past criminal record when he enlisted, but being short on quota in the middle of a deepening war they not only accepted him, but in a matter of weeks gave him a gun, taught him how to kill and threw him into one of the most stressful and dangerous areas of Iraq. Based on the conversations that Reeves has with his many visitors the play seems to suggest at times that as a society we share part of the blame for sending these damaged and poverty-stricken individuals to war.
Andrew Goetten gives an exceptionally enthralling portrayal as Daniel Reeves, a deeply disturbed man who is more at war with himself than either the Iraqis or the American system that has made him a scapegoat to deter people from focusing on the war itself. The play is a chronicle of his twisted journey to understand his actions. As such a core figure Goetten never gets to leave stage for more than a few seconds during the entire 100 minutes. It’s one of the biggest challenges any actor can be given, and despite Goetten’s sometimes questionable attempt at a West-Texan accent, he is nonetheless an extraordinary actor who captivates us by giving Reeves all the appropriate qualities of a young man thrown into a deeply conflicted state: an underlying sadness, calm certainty, childlike wonderment, teenage cockiness, contentment, but mostly a deep menacing anger interspersed throughout. With the interactions with each of the players in the journey through his circles of hell he slowly starts to absorb the enormity of what has transpired. And even more remarkable is that through this, we’re given a window into his dark tormented soul, and actually start to sympathize with him at times. Reeves is both a disgusting monster that you want to hate, but at same time we see him as a densely troubled weak human that you want to care for.
Thankfully we are not asked to identify with Reeves, or to forgive him for what happened, but we are asked to recognize his humanity as a person as he goes through his descent into hell. That descent is structured into nine portions, reflecting the nine-stage journey in Dante’s poem. In nearly each segment Reeves encounters a myriad of authority figures played by Amanda Powell, Andy Luther, and Jude Roche. Each one that he comes in contact with has various motives to either try to help or manipulate him in some way. Especially memorable were Amanda Powell as the young lawyer preparing Reeves for his first court hearing, Andy Luther as both Reeves' first public defender and as his skillfull Army Attorney, and Jude Roche who gives a nearly flawless performance as the Lietutenant that serves Reeves with his honorable discharge from the army. They are all great actors, but overall it seemed like there needed to be a higher level of emotional commitment from everyone to give the play more urgency. This is especially true of Powell’s portrayal of the army shrink. Her intentions were good as they were, but she could have made some stronger acting choices to give the whole scene some additional layers.
Scenic designer Courtney O’Neill's set finds it’s brilliance in its simplicity and starkness. The “less is more” concept is done to perfection in this show. There are no special effects. No lavish backdrops or scenery. Only a few small furniture pieces and a blank wall in the background. A metallic oval on the floor represents his jail cell. The audience also seems to be a part of the set, surrounding most of the stage in a semi-thrust, almost as if we were the jurors deciding this case. But overall the main focus and attention is on the actors and the material itself. And for the most part, they are both strong enough to do their jobs.
Playwright Bill Cain wrote a dense, but fascinating script. It is full of philosophical discussions, existential questions, and literally illusions, while at same time it still comes off as sounding very modern and raw. The biggest problem with the script though isn’t so much in the dialogue, it’s in Cain’s attempt at forcing an anti-war statement throughout it. The exploration that surrounds the morality and inhumanness of America’s decision to go into an unjust war with soldiers who are totally unfit for duty is extremely relevant and important. However the topic would have been more effective had Cain inserted it at the climax of the play. Instead it’s mentioned and explored within the first 10 minutes. Then for the rest of the 90 minutes we get scene after scene of characters moralizing around the issue in different ways, some directly and others more subtlety. The effect is that after an hour the repetitiveness of the issue starts to get too preachy.
In addition Cain has a bad tendency to overwrite. Some scenes that should only be about 12 to 15 minutes long instead seem to go on for over 20 minutes or more. This wouldn’t be so bad to sit through had director Marti Lyons expanded on some of the more witty and lighthearted moments that were sprinkled underneath the text. This is especially true of the scenes that Reeves had with his Army Attorney and later with his Public Defender both portrayed superbly by Andy Luther. Without much attempt at humor we’re left instead with more and more darkness. The resulting downhill slope leaves us feeling numb, rather than being as emotionally invested as we could be.
In the last moment of the play, in what would be considered the ninth and final circle of Reeves' own descent, he comes to be in his own version of hell, figuratively and literally: after his sentencing and execution (where he is seen washing his hands and body in a basin, an almost Christian puritanical way of cleansing himself of sin) he goes to a place where he is finally able to feel empathy and remorse for his actions. In his memory he relives the moment that the rape occurred and is able to understand how the young girl must have felt. No fire and brimstone needed in this version of hell. The guilt that he is finally capable of feeling will now haunt him for all eternity. He has learned how to feel the pain of his enemy. It’s a grim and contorted version of redemption that seems totally just. Goetten does a wonderful job handling this complex and uncomfortable monologue.
Bottom Line: 9 Circles is recommended. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been this deeply disturbed by a play. I even had to go for a long walk after it was over to comprehend all of it. But it’s good sometimes to have something that will shake you out of your element so completely. The story moves you out of your comfort zone and forces you to look at things in a new way, and that is something truly vital to go through at a time when our nation is debating on going to war again. There is a cost to war that goes beyond what the soldiers experience. It is about our collective responsibility as a society for these decisions. But what sets this play apart from most is that at a certain point 9 Circles stops being an intellectual debate and becomes about a human experience. And for better or worse it’s an experience that will stay with you long after you've left the theatre.
9 Circles – Sideshow Theatre Company, in association with the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events
Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes roughly. There is no intermission
Location: The DCASE Storefront Theatre, 66 E Randolph Street, Chicago, IL
Located across from the Chicago Cultural Center. Half a block from the Randolph and Wabash CTA station.
Runs through: October 6, 2013
Curtain Times: Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30 PM. Sundays at 3:00 PM
Tickets: $15 and can be purchased online (see link above)
Directed by Marti Lyons, Written by Bill Cain
Set Design by Courtney O’Neill, Costume Design by Kristin DeiTos, Lighting Design by Mac Vaughey, Sound Design by Christopher LaPorte, Original Music by Michael Huey, Properties Management by Arianna Soloway, Dramaturgy by Jeffrey Gardner, Stage Management by Cate Anderson and Brittany Parlor
Cast includes: Andrew Goetten (Pvt. Daniel Reeves), Andy Luther (Army Attorney, Public Defender), Amanda Powell (Young Lawyer, Shrink, Prosecution), and Jude Roche (Lieutenant, Pastor)