BWW Reviews: Curious Theatre's 9 CIRCLES - a Compelling Ensemble!
Curious Theatre presents their first show of the New Year and it's a compelling doozy! 9 CIRCLES by Bill Cain is probably one of the most well written and poignant shows that I have ever seen. The story follows the trial of grunt Daniel Edward Reeves (Sean Scrutchins in a difficult and stellar performance) after his platoon has murdered an Iraqi family and he is accused of raping and murdering a 14-year-old girl. Mirroring the 9 Circles of Hell from Dante's Inferno, as well as the real-life Iraqi Triangle of Death incident of 2006, 9 CIRCLES follows Daniel from discharge to arrest to trial to the very end (not giving it away, people, but it is heartbreaking and tragic). This fascinating script thoroughly delves into the multi-layered questions an unpopular war presents: "War... what is it good for (is it worth it)?" Playwright Bill Cain says it best: "I don't think this is a war... it is just violence!" As more horrific atrocities committed by American military personnel are made public (Abu Ghraib, Gitmo), this piece proves to be an important, eye-opening exploration of the effects of war on our service members and innocent others, and how one man can be pushed to the point of committing murder.
For a show that is very graphic and in your face, the story started on a humorous note during Daniel's military discharge. It is quickly obvious that the first lighthearted moment is the last lighthearted moment, with the chilling couch metaphor that Daniel describes ("People are supposed to die"). We follow his slow spiraling descent as he is stripped of his military status and awakens in a drunken stupor in jail. This is where Daniel meets the first of many advocates and we discover the serious charges against him ("I believe that under the right circumstances anyone is capable of terrible things"), although his egregious situation has yet to sink in. From here, various characters assist Daniel in picking up the fractured pieces of a violence-shattered life, making him realize what he has done as he traverses circular landscapes of hellish madness. The two most notable circles happen between Daniel and a priest (touching and funny: "Did you feel the pain of the war?") and Daniel's counseling session in the military (so freaking intense: "Soldier, I think you have been in Iraq too long?"). We come to realize the exact horror that has transpired and, from that moment of recognition, the show becomes a spiraling descent into shame-laced guilt and regret.
One phrase kept popping up that I found interesting as far as a linguistic redundancy device (circles!) – "sympathetic reaction" (or "acute stress response"), which was first described by American physiologist Walter Cannon in the 1920s. Dr. Cannon basically identified the "fight or flight" response in humans, and was interested in the role of the sympathetic nervous system in times of trauma and stress – sort of that autopilot mechanism our bodies and brains involuntarily turn on in times of perceived danger. Daniel uses the idea of sympathetic reaction to deny and excuse his wartime actions, but the circular motion of the phrase itself – how it keeps coming back around – is also an indication of getting a taste of his own medicine (bitter fruit, regret, guilt). The trial itself is an interesting debate about what actually transpired and what is propaganda. It becomes not so much about the evidence (since the crime happened overseas), but more of a debate on morality. But this determined deliberation of the issue is simply to open Daniel's eyes so he can come full circle to face not only his crime, but the personal demons spawned by his actions. This metaphorical stripping away requires real nakedness. I appreciated the full nudity and its symbolism. Nakedness is a wonderful way to imply vulnerability and exposure, not just in the act of being stripped bare physically, but in the emotional rawness that bare skin represents. The first time Daniel is presented naked, it is an act of degradation as he is stripped of his military regalia and, thus, stripped of an aspect of his identity he once took pride in. The second time Daniel is exposed has more to do with humility and acceptance of his actions. Watching Daniel navigate the final circle, finally coming to terms with what he's done and accepting his fate, packs an emotional punch in the gut. Scrutchins positively shines in this amazing final monologue ("If I wake up in the sand, I know I am in hell").
Scrutchins' portrayal as broken, haunted veteran Daniel Reeves is one of the most impressive Denver premieres I've seen. He gives his character humor, intensity, despair, and reluctant acceptance, and his final monologue is truly award worthy. I held my breath and didn't blink during that last scene, hanging on every syllable and every gesture. Scrutchins is backed by a superb ensemble, long-time Curious Theatre members Michael McNeill, Erik Sandvold, and Karen Slack, playing eight roles between them. Each has their moment to shine, supporting Daniel and the overall dark theme and disturbing atmosphere with thoughtful, powerful performances. These actors have mastered their craft in this fine production.
I realize that it may not have been intentional (but knowing Christy Montour-Larson's genius directing, I am certain it is), but the uncomfortably warm theater lent an oppressive heaviness to the air that suited the story theme very well. It made me wonder what it would be like to be unable to escape the overbearing heat of an Iraqi desert set afire, and further amplified the profound unease of the subject matter. The set by designer Guy Wright is simple and effective, consisting of a circular stage with visible protruding side wings. A ring of sand encircles the stage as if to symbolize that no matter where Daniel goes he cannot escape the fine grains of truth that confine him. The wings seem symbolic of freedom, yet they are anchored, and they serve the dual function of dressing partition for the ensemble to change costumes behind. It is a stroke of genius on the part of the director and the playwright to keep Daniel onstage throughout the entire show – regardless of the trial's outcome, he is already imprisoned, held captive by demons and fiery sand. I also appreciated that there was no intermission, which kept the rising tension and momentum intact until the bitter end. The lighting by designer Richard Devin lends appropriate atmosphere, especially in the scene when Daniel delivers his final speech. The lights were so blinding it was almost electrocuting (dang, no spoilers!) and held the suspense of that riveting monologue.
This is a difficult play with difficult subject matter, forcing us to look at the more ugly aspects of being flawed and human. Definitely not for the little ones, but if you're looking for a story that will engage your intellect and your emotional fortitude and make you rethink what you think you know, you do not want to miss 9 CIRCLES. Dress in light clothing and bring tissues. 9 CIRCLES will be front and center at Curious Theatre until February 19th. For tickets or information, contact the box office at 303-623-0524 or check online at www.curioustheatre.org.
PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Ensminger