Theatre Reviews

9 Circles

9c-11x17-webDirected by Marti Lyons

Written by Bill Cain

At DCASE Storefront Theater

An often riveting look at the prices we let others pay

Dante’s description of Hell’s nine circles and of its punishments that come in the form of contrapasso (‘suffer the opposite’) has been one of most influential descriptions of that underworld yet created. For the warrior at the center of Sideshow Theatre’s 9 Circles, he is about to become something of a Dante himself, lead through the concentric rings of Hell by a string of ersatz Virgils as he suffers punishment for an unpardonable crime. Along the journey, we sit in judgment even as we question our commitment to our own moral compass and stalwart belief in culpability and free will. By show’s end, we may find that the questions beggared by the precedings make a belief in a true Hell something of a sin itself. 9 Circles is a mesmerizing portrait of war against evil—not just terrorists, but the evil inside ourselves.


Your typical good-old-boy from Texas, young Private Daniel Reeves (Andrew Goetten) is seemingly tailor-made for army life. He believes in the righteousness of his duty, is devoted to his comrades, and doesn’t dwell too much on the death around him. That last insight, it would seem, is rather a sticking point in his evaluation. Pvt. Reeves is almost too unmoved by the horrors around him—seemingly lacking in ‘sympathetic reaction’. An honorable discharge comes as a surprise, leading to a befuddled Pvt Reeves trying to find a way out of getting back in. This is the first circle in his descent.

Stateside, his depression at leaving his brothers has lead him to a DUI from which he awakes in the cell that becomes the entry to circle two. He learns from an attorney (Amanda Powell) that he is being tried for murder and rape committed in Iraq. Most shocking is the lack of evidence beyond testimony of his comrades and a specious linking to a latter killing of his friends and alleged conspirators.

One by one, he moves incrementally deeper into the inferno. On his journey, he meets a slew of conniving characters, from an army attorney who wants to use him to show the unpopularity of the war to the world (Andy Luther) to a dubious chaplain who wants him to consider suicide (Jude Roche). None of them have Reeves’ best interests at heart—he is merely a pawn to them in a larger moral war. Caught in the maelstrom of political scapegoating and personal guilt, Reeves slowly deconstructs from a troubled young man with antisocial personality disorder to only too late rebuild as something just bordering human.


While this is ostensibly a war drama of the ilk of A Few Good Men, the war is a springboard to a more personal “army of one” dissection of responsibility. Pvt. Reeves should not have ever been allowed into the Army in the first place, so is the recruiter who gave him a ‘moral waiver’ partly culpable for the crimes he committed? Is his therapist who threw drugs at the problem and some less-than-stellar advice to blame? As one will note, the greatest crime Pvt. Reeves committed was to humanize the enemy, thus making us “feel the enemy’s pain.” Cain does this for us the viewer as we begin to feel pity for this chained monster before us.

Some parts of 9 Circles come off heavy-handed, not to mention having some fallacious leaps of logic that feel a little like puerile rants that such characters would not realistically spout. Other times, Cain seems to value cleverness above intelligence vis-à-vis a running bit about oxymorons and euphemisms.

What really makes this journey to hell worthwhile is Goetten’s performance. Despite a sometimes unintelligible Southern drawl, Goetten is a completely absorbing presence, realistically pulling himself apart as the last shreds of his humanity are stripped away by himself and the machinations of others. What is ultimately laid bare is heartrending to behold.

With so many sadly topical headlines paralleling the events of Cain’s story (some reviews from its premiere a few years ago indicate it is based on actual events), Circles’  lessons are an essential piece of the story of our relationship to those who fight our battles for us. As Dante said of war, “O blind cupidity and insane anger, which goad us on so much in our short life, then steep us in such grief eternally!”



Review by Clint May

Date Reviewed: September 6, 2013

At DCASE Storefront Theater, 66 E Randolph, Chicago, IL 60601, call 773.871.3000, tickets $15, Thursdays thru Saturdays 7:30pm, Sundays 2pm, running time is 100 minutes, through October 6.

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