Hot on the heels of the president’s announced troop withdrawals from Iraq, the Bootleg Theater offers a disturbing vision of what that nine-year war has turned us into. “Us” is the operative word, for Pvt. Daniel Edward Reeves, the protagonist of Bill Cain’s “9 Circles,” is all too clearly drawn as a metaphor for America’s descent into hell on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates. Happily, a tour de force from Patrick J. Adams (of TV’s “Suits”) ensures we always see the character clear as both individual and symbol. Justin Zsebe has helmed a great production of an essential play.
From the moment we enter the arena — and it’s the literal arena, Jason Adams’ circular arrangement of individual bleachers containing upper tiers for adventurous patrons — Pvt. Reeves greets us in full battle gear: your tax dollars at work. Standing atop crates, surveying the terrain (i.e. us) through impenetrable shades, he is the very picture of the reliable sentinel, being all that he can be.
That implacable air and the trappings are systematically, literally stripped away in a series of nine scenes in which the consequences of his service are revealed to bring him down, and then further down, until we recognize (as he may not) exactly what he has become in the name of defending our freedom.
Giving more away is possible but undesirable. Audiences deserve to be confronted with “9 Circles” with as little softening preamble as possible, and the more you know about its given circumstances the easier it may be to dismiss as familiar, or politically suspect, what Cain is trying to do here. Suffice it to say Pvt. Reeves is more than the cliched redneck taught only to kill, and those involved in determining his fate have more on their agenda than this one individual’s redemption or punishment.
What can be revealed is the versatility of Paul Dillon, Joe Holt and Arlene Santana who, despite individually vivid personalities, fully embody a range of military identities at multiple points on the ideological spectrum. They are complemented by Lap Chi Chu’s dramatic lighting, and a host of theatrical effects Zsebe manages with bold assurance.
Cain puts Adams through a wringer, and the thesp in turn does the same to us. This undereducated, bigoted, brawling youth with angelic looks and woebegone eyes is a mass of contradictions, of which Adams never loses a master artist’s control. Whatever you assume about him, prepare to have Cain and Adams change your mind — several times, probably — as he is buffeted by forces beyond all control.
By the end, when Reeves is down to his most elemental, it’s difficult not to think of the Biblical announcement “Ecce homo”: behold the man. And since that sentiment was spoken by judge Pontius Pilate during another legal proceeding, involving another defendant depicted in traditional art as staring at us to compel our identification with his suffering, it seems not inappropriate as well.
The shakiness felt by anyone climbing up or down the rickety ladders to get to that upper tier is nothing compared to the shakiness you are likely to feel as this remarkable work comes to its melancholy end. Either way, it’s an experience not to be missed or forgotten.