Review: TheatreLab’s ’9 Circles’ is worth seeing, flaws and all
In his drama, 9 Circles, now playing at TheaterLab, Jesuit playwright Bill Cain has written a piece that is dark, profane, provocative, profoundly funny in parts, disturbing and demanding.
The titles refers to Dante Alighieri’s early 14th Century literary masterpiece, the “Divine Comedy” or, as originally titled “Commedia” (the Divine was ascribed by another later on). The epic poem focuses on one man’s journey from the pits of Hell to the divine light of Paradise. And now army soldier Daniel Edward Reeves (Tyler Stevens), a troubled, uneducated, mentally disturbed Texas boy, who is sent to Iraq as part of President George Bush’s “Mission Iraqi Freedom,” must go through own “Commedia.”
As we now know, the “mission” was ill advised and based upon false intelligence. Private Reeves, however, is convinced he is sent to kill in the name of U.S.A., and commits an atrocious act of violence, which is sure to lead to shock and awe.
The play’s structure is built on Dante’s nine circles of Hell, but perhaps this play is more thematically aligned to Georg Buchner’s “Woyzeck”, a 19th century German classic about a lost military soul who, maddened by the condoned insanity surrounding him, rushes “through the world like an open razor.”
9 Circles, though rooted in the classics mentioned above, is also based on the infamous 2009 case of former 101st Airborne Division Pfc. Steven Dale Green, convicted in a federal court for the crimes he’s committed. Differences exists, but they are fine and more dramatic on stage.
As the play unfolds, the nine segments are all two character scenes during which Reeves is confronted, challenged and exploited for his behavior. All supporting characters seem to want something from him. 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.
The play is not perfect. It demands an audience to hang onto every word, think and interpret – not easy. Cain’s obvious disdain for military aggression and the death penalty color the character’s motivations, sometimes a little too simplistically. The writing sometimes sounds more like argument than dialogue. His military characters often sound like what a liberal would say, rather than military personnel who are trained to follow orders and trust their superiors.
The character of Reeves is also an astonishingly complicated role. It’s an actor’s Nirvana. The man is a cauldron of rage. A morally and spiritually thin human grasping onto his sanity and often failing. The role demands nuance and alternate sympathy and revulsion by the audience. The role demands the actor to take Dante’s journey from the pits of hell to the bliss of Heaven, and all without the spiritual guides that aided Dante. Tyler Stevens is an engaging young actor. He succeeds in bringing Reeves’ feisty muscular ignorance to bear and does fine transitioning into moral confusion.
What is less successful is the upper and lower depths the character needs to embody. Torment, rage, insanity, loss of soul, the agony of discovering the meaningless, hollow values you have clung to, the crushing discovery that you have been transformed into a monster, the ultimate supplication before death to God.
A lot to ask from a young actor, but with time or perhaps better instruction, this fine actor will tap into these emotions.
The balance of the cast is a mixed bag. Chris Dunn shifts characters with ease, doing superior work with each. Jamar Jones and Maria Terrell struggled to make distinctive choices that defined their particular characters as well as the different characters they played. The attorney lacked a touch of evil, the psychiatrist the necessary empathy.
Unfortunately the actors are not helped much by the technical and directorial elements. The lack of set pieces, mood lighting and music requires the director’s job to make lemonade out of lemons. More detail to staging redundancies and coaching young actors thru complicated emotional landscapes are certainly the standard we would expect.
Unfortunately many of these issues were not overcome.
The stage is empty with the exception of different sized trunks which are set and moved, but without purpose (serving as prop and costume depositories) and small piles of sand at the North, South, East and West. The only significance of the sand seemed to be home base for different aspects of the character of Reeves. Peter Brooks extols the virtues of “The Empty Space” for making theater. While true, two character scenes cannot be static. People do not stand still. They engage. They “do.” The empty spaces of the Lab set hampered some of the drama as characters ended up face to face for long periods of time either not moving or moving without real motivation. Experienced actors like Dunn know what to do with an empty space. Younger actors have to be taught.
Costumes were suggestive which robbed some of the military gravitas and a feel for the country. What was really missing for me was mood lighting. This is one area I have always been concerned about with productions at the Lab. Lack of hanging space and perhaps equipment to properly light a show. When characters stood in the diagonal corners, the intensity of the light beaming on them across the space was blinding to the audience members seated behind them (which included me).
On the one hand this is a drama that should not be missed. On the other hand this drama requires actors of more experience and ability. The purpose of this Theater Series is to give plays, directors and actors a chance to do something which may not have mainstream viability. This goal was surely met although I’m not sure a mainstage production of this script is not warranted.
TheaterLab deserves praise for being pioneers of this sort of production. They are perhaps the only company willing to take that chance and I say Bravo.
9 Circles runs at The Basement, 300 E Broad, through Jan. 24. General admission is $15 and tickets can be purchased here .
Bottom Line: There is more to see in town than Christmas plays. Go feed your soul and your mind as well. Christmas plays are great. Family oriented and appropriately festive. They are, however, exactly as you’d expect: inconsequential lightweight comedies without depth or meaningful conflict. Just as man does live by bread alone, you can [...]December 5, 2016
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