Much of Bill Cain’s "9 Circles" is Dante’s "Inferno" layered over a not-so-loose adaptation of the story of Steven Green, a former private in the US Army, who was honorably discharged with an anti-social personality disorder and later convicted of raping and murdering a 14-year-old Iraqi girl, as well as murdering three members of her family.
Sideshow Theatre Company’s production of the play, directed by Marti Lyons, is an intense, provocative 100 minutes of theater, distinguished by strong performances, though it doesn’t entirely overcome what seem to be some fundamental issues with the play.
Cain’s choice to co-opt other high-profile incidents that became emblems of the darkest consequences of the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan seems odd, given the enormity of Green’s own story. In the primary example of this "borrowing," Daniel Reeves (Green’s alter ego in the play) wonders for the length of an entire circle about a world that denounces him for throwing a dog from a roof seems to care not at all about the atrocities that form the backdrop of the incidents. It’s one of the weakest sections of the play and not helped by the nagging sensation that the "real life" incident occurred in another time and place entirely.
The play’s twisted legal landscape also has a tendency to draw attention away from the more novel (and more successful) explorations of mind and conscience. The complexities of Green’s actual story are compelling in their own right, given that he was the first person charged under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act and convicted in a civilian federal court, but Cain once again, adds another complicating factor by altering the outcome of the real life trial.
Although Green received a life sentence, Reeves’ ninth circle, Inferno, captures the characters last words as he discovers that death by lethal injection is, indeed, excruciating. Here, at least, Cain makes better use of the added theme he’s introducing as Reeves’ experience seems to, at last, make him feel the pain of the enemy. Nonetheless, one wonders if the time devoted to the issue might have been productively spent more fully probing the real story’s already dense material.
As usual, Sideshow’s staging is striking and effective. The audience enters Courtney O’Neill’s scenic design from above and takes their seats on steeply raked tiers behind stark, black railings meant to resemble a juror’s box. The flexible space at the DCASE’s storefront theater is masked off to a small footprint with a light gray ellipse on a darker gray floor.
A square black table, two low metal benches and a handful of props discarded along the way form the only set, though one circle calls for Reeves to be "restrained." The black, wheeled set piece to which he’s strapped evokes an electric chair a little too insistently. It’s also the only set piece that appears and disappears, which draws some undue attention.
Christopher M. LaPorte’s sound design, Michael Huey’s original music, and Mac Vaughey’s lighting are so unnervingly successful in creating a violent, alienating landscape that these elements of the production underscored my desire to see some of the ripped-from-the headlines and legalistic elements stripped away in favor of more psychological and moral explorations.
Andrew Goetten is an able anchor for the show as Pvt. Daniel Reeves. The demands of the role range from an overwhelming amount of dialogue, mastery of a west Texas accent, and a persistently naive approach to every scene. Goetten handles the horror, humor and pathos of the role admirably.
In their earlier scenes, Amanda Dahl Powell and Andy Luther as a young lawyer and army attorney, respectively, both seemed curiously flat. But given the depth and flexibility of their performances in subsequent roles, the choice seems deliberately made to underscore Reeves’ moral and psychological progression. It’s an interesting one, albeit one that has to be appreciated in retrospect.
Jude Roche’s performance is the inverse of those by Luther and Powell. He and Goetten establish the almost Beckett-like tone that the play visits and revisits as they banter about oxymorons and euphemisms in the context of Reeves’ "honorable discharge." However, Roche later returns as a Pastor and the two actors don’t quite seem to hit their stride together. However, this seems more attributable to the fact that the character seems written to be sinister and strange in a way that is more distracting than intriguing.
"9 Circles" runs through October 6 at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph, Chicago, IL. Tickets are available at www.sideshowtheatre.org.