At a time when drone strikes and economic sanctions have glazed over the horror of war, Forum Theatre’s riveting 9 Circles chooses to yank the jarring human toll back into the spotlight. Playwright Bill Cain’s unnerving modern reimagining of Dante’s Inferno offers a mind bending journey through a wayward soldier’s transgression, judgment, and penance amid the fallout of the quixotic Iraq War.
Cain’s exploration of the morality and inhumanity of war is a challenging theatrical experience. The story follows a halting crescendo of action, jumping backward and forward through time before culminating in a big dramatic payoff.
Private Daniel Edward Reeves, played by the astonishing Julian Elijah Martinez, stands accused of heinous crimes in Iraq. Reeves is trapped onstage in a concentric limbo of military tribunals, therapy sessions, and jail cells, dressed in stark white scenery by Klyph Stanford and lit in harsh tones by Dan Covey.
Starting with Circle 1 (of 9), when Reeves receives an Honorable Discharge from the army, he slowly spirals downward through levels of torment and introspection. Cast members Jonathan Feuer, Katy Carkuff, and Scott McCormick visit Reeves in the varied guises of army officer, lawyer, counselor, and pastor, offering a bewildering mix of sympathetic aid and harsh condemnation.
As each figure floats in and out of Reeves’ confined orbit, they take a small piece of the soldier’s sanity with them. Cain’s labyrinthine script reveals an eye-opening spectrum of motivations for each visitor. One wants to save Reeves from his sins. One wants to burnish his legal credentials by getting an accused murderer off the hook. And one tries to understand and empathize with Reeves, even at the expense of her own job. These conflicting motivations confuse and enrage Reeves, whose mind unravels and then briefly clears as he approaches the end of his dark journey.
Martinez’s performance is magic for much of the play. His mysterious, constantly referenced social disorder allows him a great deal of leeway, as he swings frequently from sympathetic victim to chilling aggressor. It’s like a modern day Jekyll and Hyde, wherein Reeves’ dueling natures have either forgotten or refuse to acknowledge the others’ existence. He is both a monster and a remarkably lucid voice in a mad, war-crazed world. Martinez easily handles this taxing assignment, dancing on the knife-edge of sanity and never revealing, or perhaps realizing, the truth until a stark private moment late in the play. He bares body and soul to the audience in that kind of special performance for which the Helen Hayes Awards were created.
The rest of the cast is charged with embodying vital, conflicting roles back to back, and they largely thrive under the challenge.
Scott McCormick handles a difficult transition with aplomb, as he shifts in back to back scenes from steely army attorney to hesitant pastor. From one minute to the next, McCormick’s bullish military scorn at Reeves’ deficiencies melts into the mincing facade of a man of God confronting pure evil for the first time in his religious life.
Jonathan Feuer first plays a Lieutenant charged with relieving the high strung Reeves of duty, offering sharp dialogue but not much else in a businesslike, straight man capacity. However, Feuer comes into his own as an amoral defense lawyer bent on saving Reeves at any cost.
As the tormented soldier details haunting memories from Iraq, the unfazed Feuer ignores the bloody images and clings to his credo of “Where’s the proof?” If he has any qualms about Reeves increasingly unhinged behavior, Feuer certainly doesn’t show it as he charges forward with cold calculation. His icy refusal to acknowledge the terrible nature of the accusations is almost as shocking as the crimes themselves.
Closes March 2, 2013
Round House Theatre – Silver Spring
8641 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD
1 hour, 45 minutes without intermission
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Reeves’ descent through his own nine levels of judgment offers a stirring critique of army recruiting standards, the increasingly heavy burden placed upon our armed forces, and an American society that has failed to offer troubled young men like Daniel Reeves a path beyond “jail or the Army”.
Director Jennifer L. Nelson’s gripping vision plays out over nearly two breathless hours, delivering a hammer blow in the final minutes that condemns the numbing, life altering effects of constant war.
9 Circles by Bill Cain . Directed by Jennifer L. Nelson . Featuring Katy Carkuff, Jonathan Feuer, Julian Elijah Martinez, and Scott McCormick. Creative team: Scenic design: Klyph Stanford, lighting design: Dan Covey, costume design: Frank Labovitz, sound design: Thomas Sowers. Produced by Forum Theatre . Reviewed by Ben Demers.