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").