Give credit to the Forum Theatre for presenting a play about wartime in 21st Century, particularly at a time when war is the last thing on the American’ mind, as TV news has dropped war coverage as a regular item. Its production of Bill Cain’s 9 Circles brings front and center the pain and horror of the Iraq War through the person of a private charged with a war atrocity. And let’s admire the ability of an actor, Julian Elijah Martinez, to endure every scene of the play, baring himself while attempting to bare his character’s soul in the process.
And yet, there’s so much off-putting about the play, which frames the private’s painful journey alongside the overused circles of Dante’s Inferno.
‘9 Circles’ brings front and center the pain and horror of the Iraq War…
In the Forum Theatre production at the Round House Silver Spring (directed by Jennifer L. Nelson), Private Reeves has a number of different personalities – goofy as Gomer Pyle in the initial honorable discharge, steely and cynical as Ernie Pyle in another; a gangster on the offense here, a puddle of self-pity there. In the end, there is a possibility we’re supposed to feel sorry for him for killing a civilian Iraq family of three and raping and murdering a 14-year-old girl.
Interacting with all manner of bureaucratic process including (public defender, preacher, military lawyer, civilian defense layer, psychiatrist) — the nine circles presumably — Martinez is directed to go two gears with his reactions, robotically even keel or way over the top. Subtlety is a casualty of 9 Circles just as innocence is in war.
Upon a circular set by Klyph Stanford that serves as office and jail as needed, with the lights of Dan Covey focus into tighter circles as Thomas Sowers sound design offers its own ominous touches. Meanwhile, a subtle change in backdrop happens as the play goes on, as the waving American flag backdrop gives way for the eyes of an Iraqi girl.
9 Circles is inspired by an actual case, that of former 101st Airborne Division Pfc. Steven Dale Green, convicted in federal court in 2009 for raping and killing a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and murdering her family.
Indictments of the war come fleetingly, mostly through the offhand comments of his interrogators. Katy Carkuff, Jonathan Feuer, and Scott McCormick all do a fine job in their various roles, which come to the stage from seats in the three-quarter round theater, as if to emphasize they are us. But if we also created a Private Reeves and are to blame for his horrific crime, that connection is never made clear.
As it is, the private goes through his torturous investigations (crying for his car more often than his family) and beginning many scenes by changing his clothes, a fussy and needless distraction that crosses the line when he gets naked near the end of the play – a failing stab at edginess that is made more uncomfortable because the actor is the only African-American on stage. What kind of entertainment are we crafting here?
Let me be first to announce my opinion towards 9 Circles may be an isolated one. Playwright Bill Cain’s script won a $25,000 prize for the best play out of regional theater in 2010. Others have praised its power or the fact that it brings up contemporary wartime issues. But it would seem there is more to be written from the ongoing wars than a play that makes a child rapist and murderer a sympathetic character.
I wouldn’t echo Dante in issuing a warning to “abandon hope all ye who enter in.” I’d just say: know what you’re getting into.
Advisory: Full male nudity briefly, much profane language. Not recommended for audiences younger than enlistment age requirements.
Time: two hours, no intermission.
9 Circles by Bill Cain by the Forum Theatre at the Round House Theatre Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, continues through March 2. Tickets are available through 240-644-1390 or click here.