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Theater review: '9 Circles' at Bootleg Theater

October 25, 2011 |  4:00 pm

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References to Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” permeate “9 Circles,” Bill Cain’s journey into the inferno of an Iraq war veteran’s shattered mind. But this theatrical caldron, now at Bootleg Theater, is more aptly compared to Georg Büchner’s 19th century German classic “Woyzeck,” another drama about a lost military soul who, maddened by the condoned insanity surrounding him, rushes “through the world like an open razor.”

Cain may not have Büchner’s genius for infusing poetic fragments with disproportionate human pain, but he also treats a criminal case as an opportunity to expose brutal societal conditions. Here, a fictional character’s fractured consciousness opens a window onto the nation’s sickened soul. Acted with buzz-saw intensity, the drama needs a better modulated production than director Justin Zsebe provides, but there’s no denying the work’s blunt force.

Pvt. Daniel Edward Reeves is a mentally unstable backwoods Texas boy who’s getting booted out of the Army. (He’s played with relentless conviction by Patrick J. Adams, who, in one of his many tours of duty with the playwright, appeared in “Equivocation” at the Geffen Playhouse.) Reeves’ file says he has a “personality disorder,” but he doesn’t see why his brazen indifference to murder should get him discharged.

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Sir, we came here to kill people, sir,” he tells the administrating Lieutenant, as though reminding him that two plus two equals four.

The logic for Reeves, who threw a dog off a building for kicks, doesn’t tally. How can the Army do without him given the dire situation on the ground? Is the problem inside his head so bad that he should be barred from combat?

The evidence weighs heavily against him. Reeves, it’s revealed after he has been carted off to prison back home, has committed a crime against Iraqi civilians so heinous that the government is worried it could undermine public support for the war. (God forbid the enemy should seem pitiable.) It’s an Abu Ghraib moment, one that compels the President to describe Reeves on national television as a “stain on the United States’ honorable image.”

“9 Circles” unfolds largely as a series of heated duologues, in which Reeves parries (incoherently but not meaninglessly) questions about his destructive motives while rejecting ideologically charged strategies for his defense. Military personnel, lawyers and even a pastor (roles vociferously assumed by Paul Dillon, Joe Holt and Arlene Santana) all have their own agendas as the play proceeds from one circle to the next in a hell that’s transformed into a kind of pugilistic ring on Jason Adams’ sand-encircled, trunk-filled set, starkly illuminated by lighting designer Lap Chi Chu.

At issue is not just the nature of Reeves’ guilt but the speciousness of a war that has descended into chaotic violence. Cain’s indictment extends to a military operation willing to accept a 19-year-old recruit with drug convictions, no high school diploma or employment history and an obvious screw loose.

Damning stuff. But the drama needs a presentation more alert to its argumentative subtleties. The writing, to be fair, sometimes seems to be blindly casting about for its complexity, but there’s a monotonous quality to the shrieks and roars that makes Reeves’ fierce struggle seem unduly static.

In portraying a protagonist who is truly a product of his blasted environment, Adams is practically willing to flay his own skin. His commitment is total. His fellow cast members, unfortunately, are encouraged to compete with him. Their fury is formidable, but some of the play’s overarching sense gets swallowed in the vehemence.

Related:

Theater review: 'Peace In Our Time'

Theater review: 'Iris' by Cirque du Soleil

Theater review: 'Busting Out!' at the Hayworth Theatre

— Charles McNulty

twitter.com\charlesmcnulty
charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

‘9 Circles,’Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Boulevard, L.A. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. Ends Nov. 12. $25. (213) 389-3856 or www.bootlegtheater.org. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Photos: Upper: Joe Holt and Patrick J. Adams.  Lower: Arlene Santana and Patrick J. Adams. Credit: Patti McGuire

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