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On March 20, 2003, the United States and its coalition of allies invaded Iraq. Although the war was initially presented as a straightforward battle between freedom and tyranny, the moral milieu became a good deal murkier after Abu Ghraib and Haditha. In “9 Circles,” playwright Bill Cain invites the audience to look at the war through the lens of a single soldier’s experiences. It is a profoundly disquieting experience.
The title of the play references the nine circles of Hell in Dante’s “Inferno.” But while the play’s nine scenes are each called circles, they do not share the same themes as their counterparts in the “Inferno.”
The protagonist, Daniel Reeves (Stuart Mott), is a textbook example of an antihero. When we first meet him in Circle 1, he is about to receive an honorable discharge from the army due to a ‘personality disorder.’ It is difficult to know what to make of Reeves at first. With his Texan drawl and his “America Fuck Yeah” attitude, it is tempting to write him off as a buffoon. But at the same time, there are hints of underlying intelligence as well as underlying trauma.
From that point on, Reeves is on a downward spiral. He ends up in jail, accused of raping a 14-year old Iraqi girl and killing her along with her entire family. As he waits for a judge to decide his fate, he encounters various people who allegedly want to help him, from an enigmatic army lawyer (William Bolz) to a pastor with a penchant for internet porn (Whitney Derendinger). In a way, they play the role of Virgil to Reeves’ Dante, and each one of them helps guide Reeves along the path to self-discovery.
The best thing about “9 Circles” is that it explores the subject of war in a sophisticated manner. Instead of simply condemning Reeves as a monster and leaving it at that, it actually invites us to consider the extent to which he is also a victim of circumstances far beyond his control. Cain’s script is a treasure–a superb blend of erudition leavened with dark humor.
This production of “9 Circles” was part of Mott’s senior honors thesis at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. Choosing such a complex piece was something of a gamble, but it paid off handsomely. Mott has proven that he has some serious acting chops. Reeves spends most of the play in varying degrees of rage, yet Mott’s emotional intensity never faltered. And although Reeves is a character with few redeeming qualities, Mott did an excellent job of humanizing him.
Mott’s co-stars also delivered top-notch performances. The script required them to play multiple roles, and they did it with aplomb. Whitney Derendinger did a particularly nice job playing the profane pastor. There was a subtle undercurrent of menace throughout his performance, and Reeves spoke for the entire audience when he said “you are the god-damnest minister.”
Finally, Jakob Aebly deserves praise for his superb score. It was utterly haunting, and it really enhanced the action on stage.
Image courtesy of Dan Meyers.