Reviews: 9 Circles by Bill Cain. Produced by Strawberry Theatre Workshop. Directed by Greg Carter. With Norah Elges, Sam Hagen, Sylvester F. Kamara and Conner Neddersen. Now through June 25, 2016 at 12th Avenue Arts.
It’s what theater critics dread…attending a long string of mediocre productions. Not only is it depressingly dull to sit through banal theater, as a professional theater critic you start to wonder if it’s YOU that might be the problem. Have I become too jaded by all the theater I see? Am I tiresome old fusspot? (That’s rhetorical…) Is it burn-out time? Do I need a stay in the Critic’s Sanitarium?
Where IS the Critic’s Sanitarium? Does ObamaCare cover it?
Then, you see a fantastic production of a brilliantly written play and you realize: No…you just got stuck seeing a lot of crappy theater and your long national nightmare of miserable shows is finally over!!!!
The winner in this case is Strawberry Theatre Workshop’s brilliantly directed, produced, designed and acted production of Bill Cain’s riveting Iraqi War drama, 9 Circles currently on stage at 12th Avenue Arts on Capitol Hill. Not only is it the best play on a stage in Seattle right now, it’s one of the top productions of 2016.
9 Circles is a riveting and intimate look at a US Army soldier accused of a horrendous crime. PFC Daniel Edward Reeves is a young blue collar soldier from the wrong side of some Texas tracks and he’s got an empathy problem. In many ways, he’s the ideal military killing machine but after a mission goes horribly wrong and a civilian Iraqi family is slaughtered and the family’s daughter raped before her death, Reeves becomes a problem for both the Army and the US government. Despite the fact he’s out of the Army and back on US soil, Reeves is arrested and charged with the rape and the murder of the family…in civilian court.
Bill Cain’s taut script takes us through the “9 Circles” of Reeves’ hellish journey. Cain, a Jesuit priest turned playwright uses Dante’s Inferno as a rough guideline for the structure of the play as Reeves navigates through the various circles of “Hell”. But, Cain isn’t heavy handed with his allegory; this isn’t a “faith based” work of art, though faith does play a role in one segment of the play. The entirety of the work is centered on Reeves and navigates back and forth through time to tell his story.
It’s a fascinating and very well constructed piece of play writing and Mr. Cain has created a complicated and very realistic portrait of a young man troubled by an anti-social personality disorder. The question of Reeves’ guilt or innocence isn’t the entire point of this play though…Cain also delves into questions about the nature of war itself and the Iraqi War in particular and our role, as a society and government, in conducting such a war.
9 Circles is a well written play but Strawshop’s superb production only enhances its literary status. Strawshop founder/artistic director Greg Carter has expertly staged this work “chamber theater” style in the smaller of the two theaters at 12th Avenue Arts. The play is performed in the round; the audience is the judge and jury, and it’s an intimate, minutely nuanced evening of theater with excellent design work from the Strawshop team.
There are only four actors in 9 Circles and three of them play all but one of the roles. Norah Elges, Sam Hagen and Sylvester Kamara are the best ensemble you can get and they’re all giving superb performances in each of them, with Ms Elges shining as a Army psychiatrist; Hagen as Reeves’ relentlessly driven defense attorney and Kamara as a prison chaplain who tries to aid Reeves while tending to his own tortured form of faith. It’s a fine ensemble of actors all giving strong performances.
But, this show completely centers on the Reeves character and Conner Neddersen just excels in this role. Mr. Neddersen is known for his commanding and highly focused work, but he’s just riveting and compelling here in an intensely driven and masterful performance. He just nails every conflicting aspect of Reeves from his bravado to his pitying self-doubt. It’s one of the strongest performances from a local actor I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing and Mr. Neddersen deserves every accolade he is sure to get for his work.
9 Circles is not an easy play. It’s complex and adult and full of complex ideas and emotions. It’s not a “rollicking frolic” or a “frivolous romp”. It’s meaty, tough and very dense. And, for serious theater goers, it’s a must see production, a highlight for this or any theater season.