Craig Marker gives a performance of such magnitude in Marin Theatre Company’s 9 Circles that it almost eclipses the play itself.
Obviously the play has to be substantial and artful enough to elicit great work from actors, and that is certainly true of Bill Cain’s meaty script here. But at times it almost seems Marker’s not in a play at all – he’s a flesh-and-blood documentary, a slice-of-life person pushing everyone in the room through a barrage of intense emotions.
There’s simply no escaping Marker’s intensity in the 99-seat Lieberman Theatre, Marin’s intimate second stage. Nor would you want to escape. This is without question must-see theater.
Works of art dealing with the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not exactly been embraced by pop culture. Until the Oscar-bedecked The Hurt Locker, no one really bothered to pay much attention. Perhaps we’re too close in terms of current events and too far away in terms of geography and personal involvement.
Cain’s stunning work bridges those gaps with incredible efficiency. With three actors, one rudimentary set and running time of only an hour and 45 minutes, he whisks us from Iraq to the U.S. and back, pulling us deeper into his wrenching story with every scene.
Let me correct myself. We don’t have scenes here; we have circles – nine of them. Just like Dante’s Inferno. The hell that Cain depicts begins with a 19-year-old soldier, Daniel Edward Reeves, being honorably discharged after 10 months of fighting. Very quickly, we spiral down with Daniel as he’s arrested in the U.S. and charged with unspeakable crimes against Iraqi civilians.
Daniel’s hell involves betrayal, loneliness, guilt, rage, patriotism and self-realization, among many other things. The young man is described as having a personality disorder because he doesn’t feel things he probably should, and he’s also described as being “west Texas bullshit to the core” and “an articulate son of a bitch.”
That’s all accurate, but it barely begins to describe the person we come to know as we spin through these circles. Whatever he did or didn’t do in Iraq, Daniel is a sympathetic character, if only because we begin to feel the enormity of his pain and get an acute view of his inner life – what it contains and, perhaps more importantly, what it’s missing.
Marker’s performance as Daniel is heroic – he lays it all bare (literally) and carries the weight of this heavy drama on his capable shoulders. Filtered through Marker, Daniel’s life force is at once terrifying and compelling. When a priest who is attempting to save Daniel’s soul admits that the young man is “plain I-don’t-give-a-fuck human evil,” it’s hard to argue. And yet, when Daniel shows us how his mind and emotions work in relation to his actions, we empathize, and empathy is a hugely important factor here.
Under the astute, keenly felt direction of Kent Nicholson, Marker receives able support from James Carpenter, who plays all the other male roles, from lawyers to priests to commanding officers. As the priest, Carpenter is chilling, and his scene with Daniel is one of the play’s strongest. A little later on, as a lawyer who wants to use Daniel’s case to prove the futility of the war in a court of law, Carpenter is fascinating in his single-mindedness. The lawyer tells Daniel that his biggest crime was to make the enemy empathetic. “Feeling the pain of the enemy is unendurable,” the lawyer says.
Jennifer Erdmann doesn’t have enough to do, which explains why she makes less of an impression here. But her key scene with Marker in which Daniel’s hyper-macho bullshit act is finally pierced by a military shrink, is by far the evening’s most moving.
In fact, that scene provides the emotional apex of the story, and it’s only circle No. 6. The three circles after that should increase the dramatic momentum, but they don’t entirely. The final few minutes of the play are quietly horrifying, but they still don’t top the wrenching agony of Circle 6.
This world-premiere production is firmly on its feet, but there’s still work to be done in the fine-tuning.
The power and punch of 9 Circles is undeniable. Cain’s script zeroes in on one soldier’s story and leaves us feeling the inescapable historic and emotional weight of the entire war. This is theater that shakes your foundation and leaves you breathless.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bill Cain’s 9 Circles continues through Nov. 7 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Road, Mill Valley. Tickets are $33-$53. Call 415 388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org for information.