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Theater Review: “9 Circles” at Round House Silver Spring

Forum Theatre’s production of Bill Cain’s work is a discomfiting but profound experience.

Julian Elijah Martinez (Daniel Reeves) with Jonathan Feuer (Defense Lawyer) and Katy Carkuff (Prosecutor) in 9 Circles at Forum Theatre. Photograph by Melissa Blackall.

Reeves (Julian Elijah Martinez) is the central soldier in playwright Bill Cain’s 9 Circles, a chilling and personal exploration of the horrors of war. Set during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the initial premise of Forum Theatre’s production starts innocently enough—Reeves is facing honorable discharge due to some psychological problems he faces, but he doesn’t want to leave the Army, which is the first place where he’s found some satisfaction and purpose in his life. As the play delves deeper, the reference to Dante’s Inferno weaves throughout the play, as Reeves is pushed into hell’s innermost circles, or the most trying of circumstances a person can face.

Reeves is no innocent victim. He’s been accused of a heinous crime, though the circumstances surrounding the accusation have a muddy, ambiguous feel. But they’re not murky to the point of absolving Reeves—this is a man who is clearly troubled, dangerous, and frequently amoral. He’s also magnetic, compelling, and eerily sympathetic. Watching Martinez, gifted with expressive body language and a tensely manipulative presence, unravel the many layers of his character, is one of 9 Circles’ many challenging pleasures.

Cain is also the author of Equivocation, the provocative and philosophical riff on Shakespearean drama that Arena Stage tackled in 2011. And 9 Circles, an area premiere, shares the same feel of witty gutsiness and command of language, frequently injecting notes of humor into the tense proceedings.

Martinez is the core of 9 Circles, but he’s lifted by substantial performances from actors tackling multiple roles. Scott McCormick brings a weighty arrogance to the role of a cocky lawyer, while lending more of a tentative feel to an unconventional priest who is trying to break through to an imprisoned Reeves. Katy Carkuff is commanding in two different attorney roles, but the Army psychiatrist is her meatiest challenge, forcing her to face off against Reeves in one of his most combative moments.

Director Jennifer Nelson sets 9 Circles in a semicircular set reminiscent of a cage (also nodding to the play’s title). The set’s multimedia backdrop initially seems rather superfluous, merely serving to chronicle the passage into the play’s next circle (which is also announced)—but it is also responsible for one the production’s creepiest surprises near the end of the work. At around two hours, 9 Circles tests the audience with its no-intermission structure, but that discomfort is appropriate for the work. It’s a play that’s hard to watch, but important to see, and it’s an experience that shouldn’t be made any easier.

See 9 Circles through March 2 at Round House Silver Spring. The play is about two hours without an intermission, and contains brief nudity. Tickets ($25) are available via Forum’s website.

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