Bill Cain's intimate, powerful, must-see play, 9 Circles, produced by Strawberry Theatre Workshop and running through Saturday night at 12th Avenue Arts, asks if all the lives and money that have been spent on the war in Iraq were—and is still—worth it. If not (and even if so) then who or what bears the greatest responsibility for the atrocities committed during war—the systems of war or its soldiers? (This may not sound like the obvious choice for Pride weekend entertainment, but I promise, it's worth your time.)
We've got 110,000 dead Iraqis, nearly 5,000 dead U.S. soldiers, $2 trillion spent (a figure expected to grow to $6 trillion with interest), and now, six years after the Obama administration withdrew combat troops from Iraq, we still have 5,000 soldiers working in various capacities in anticipation of an offensive against the ISIS-controlled city of Mosul.
Instead of focusing on the sheer number of dead or the amount of money spent, numbers that are so huge they feel incomprehensible, numbers that transform the blood and guts and boredom and dust of war into mere bad-sounding abstractions—Cain goes deep into the trial of one soldier, PFC Daniel Reeves (played by Conner Neddersen, who successfully embodied a character with country smarts and the caged-rage jumpiness of the dudes who hung out with the Army recruiters during lunch period back home), who may or may not have orchestrated and committed horrific acts of violence against an Iraqi family.
Without making too much fuss about it, the playwright uses the structure of Dante's Inferno to tell the story, presenting several figures, one after the next, who both push the story of the trial forward and fill in expository information.
The non-Neddersen actors—Sam Hagen, Sylvester Kamara, and Norah Elges—each play multiple characters with similar personality types. Sylvester Kamara, for instance, plays an Army attorney who projects strength and warmth, and also a pastor who projects strength and warmth even though he walks with a cain and claims to struggle with an internet porn addiction. The fact that each actor did such a good job finding and exploiting the small differences within each of those characters spoke to their skill and to director Greg Carter's ability to highlight those differences in the first place.
The language reflects this nuanced doubling up in the acting. Cain uses lots of parallel imagery, paradox, wordplay, and flipped logic to animate his quick, smart dialogue, as these lines from Lieutenant demonstrate: "That is our mission. Operation Iraqi Freedom. And that's a very unusual expression because it's both a euphemism and an oxymoron. You don't see a lot of them but when you do, run, because it means there are no words to describe the unspeakable fuck-up you're in."
The doubling also happens at the level of imagery. During his most honorable moment, Reeves's body hovers over a man; during his most vile moment, Reeve's body hovers over a woman. How you apportion your anger at Reeves for his vile moment, taking into consideration your sympathy for him in the honorable moment and of course your sympathy for the people he allegedly brutalized, will largely depend on your idea of justice.
Is the soldier to blame for his own actions? Or is the army recruiter to blame? After all, the recruiter looked past Reeves's poor scholastic history and alarming psychological history, both of which would render him unfit for service, in order to bring him onboard. Or is the Army responsible? After all, the Army's slogan is "An Army of One." Or is Reeves's Army psychiatrist to blame? Or is inadequate funding and inordinate stress on the military's mental health system to blame? Or the is it the politicians who voted for the war in Iraq in the first place? Or the citizens (us!) who elected those officials? Or the people in Florida and New Hampshire who voted for Nader in 2000?
Those interested in the limitations of systems critique would do well to spend an hour and forty minutes trapped in this hell of doubles and morally relativistic mindfucks.