As one character in Bill Cain's sobering, antiwar psychodrama 9 Circles puts it, "terrible things happen" in war. It's the sort of indisputable, politely hollow phrase that says nothing — one of those euphemisms civilians use to accept the unspeakable.
That old chestnut "mistakes were made," with its general admission to some systemic wrongdoing, is another one. To explain these mistakes and terrible things would be far too intense for the evening news and water-cooler discourse. To truly understand the terrible things that happen in wartime would risk condemning the nature of warfare, puncturing the idea of U.S. imperialism, and dismantling the military-industrial complex. And there are a lot of powerful people in this country who don't want that.
So we should be grateful to have a playwright like Cain to bring at least one of these terrible things to light and then analyze it under a political, psychological, and dramaturgical microscope. 9 Circles is inspired by the civilian trial of Steven Dale Green — here renamed Daniel E. Reeves — who, along with four other Army soldiers from the 502nd Infantry Regiment, was convicted in 2006 of raping and killing a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and murdering her family. (Brian De Palma's polarizing 2007 movie Redacted dramatized the events.) As the play's title suggests, Cain borrowed his structure from Dante's Inferno and modeled his character's journey from military discharge to court sentencing on Dante's descent through the nine circles of Hell.
It's a tough theatrical pill to swallow and to perform, but luckily we have the likes of Ground Up and Rising, one of Miami's most fearless companies, willing to tackle it. The first of two war-themed plays to run at Ground Up and Rising this summer (Christopher Shinn's Dying City will be performed in September), 9 Circles will complete a two-weekend run at Artistic Vibes, where it will enjoy a proscenium production with lighting and a minimal set.
This review, on the other hand, covers a free, bare-bones warm-up staging last weekend in a small auditorium at Miami Beach Botanical Garden, where the only props were a stretcher, a black sheet, a towel, a Bible, and a bucket. The venue was acoustically imperfect and unnaturally freezing (ironic for a play about an odyssey into Hell). Because of time constraints, the show had to run for two hours and 15 minutes without an intermission (there will be one, though, at Artistic Vibes).
But the actors soldiered through it with passion. Christian Vandepas plays Reeves, honorably discharged in "Circle 1" when his diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder comes to light. Months later, thanks to testimony from his infantrymen, his war crimes in the Iraqi village of Yusufiyah relegate him to a seemingly eternal limbo of holding cells and military prisons — a deadening spiral of increasing isolation punctuated by conversations with an Army attorney, a pastor, a civilian lawyer, and a military psychologist, each representing one of Reeves' infernal circles. Finally, we experience snippets of his trial and judgment — the final three circles.
Full of potent insights about the slapdash vetting of military recruitment and war's monstrosity, 9 Circles is theater of the brain, if not the gut; in director Arturo Rossi's hands, it doesn't connect on an emotional level until the very end. Part of this is no doubt due to Cain's unique but coolly distancing structure — awkward forays into fourth-wall-breaking meta-theater don't work. And the play, which was revised from about 80 minutes to its current two-plus-hour incarnation, is simply too long.
But there's also a sense that Rossi is trying too hard to ratchet up the intensity. There's an awful lot of yelling in this production, understandable coming from Vandepas' mentally unstable murderer but less so from the attorneys and religious leaders who question him. Collin Carmouze, who plays an Army lieutenant, an Army attorney, a pastor, and a civilian lawyer, doesn't sufficiently differentiate his characters. All but the last present a mask of congeniality over an unnaturally seething id, and all end up shouting down Vandepas in noisy dins of confrontation that would have benefited from a more even keel.
Valentina Izarra, who likewise takes on three supporting roles, fares better at disappearing into each of them, imbuing her secretly frightened lawyer, hardened shrink, and genteel prosecutor with commendable degrees of nuance.
But it's Vandepas who keeps this occasionally blustery schooner of a play from capsizing. Emblematic of a certain kind of empathy-starved soldier, Vandepas illuminates his character's tortured, conflicted psyche, turning a potentially detestable psychopath into one who earns our pity. A perpetual live wire whose sparks fly at the slightest touch, Reeves is played as a deceptively dim, cold-eyed Texas hayseed — tellingly compared more than once to George W. Bush, with whom he shares a hometown. None of Vandepas' tear-stained breakdowns or irrepressible explosions feels rehearsed, and he quickly gets under our skin.
The dramatic coup de grace of his performance, and the play itself, is saved for the final circle, in which Reeves congeals into a mass of tears, observations, hallucinations, memories, prayers, and regrets. He even boldly acknowledges us, the audience. And Vandepas does all of this without moving a muscle, constricted by unseen forces.
9 Circles may be long-winded at times, its narrative stretched unnecessarily to honor the density of its literary conceit. But its climax is such a stroke of brilliance that it overpowers the show's problems, leaving us with a haunting death rattle and a human face to remember the next time terrible things happen.