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sideshow 9 circlesAdmittedly, I was a little skeptical about going to another Bill Cain play. The last one I saw was Victory Gardens’ 2012 fall season opener Equivocation, which I thought needed drastic amounts of editing and re-writing, not to mention a smaller dosage of intellectual smugness. But maybe Cain, one of the country’s ascendant playwrights, can write forcefully and from the heart instead of condescendingly and from the cerebrum if he is tackling contemporary themes such as a soldier’s experience in Iraq, versus the foibles and farce of Shakespeare’s life.  And I should have known that Sideshow Theatre Company, one of the few young Chicago theater companies that have continued to impress me (their wacky but heartfelt Heddatron made my best of 2011 theater list) will take any material and do the best it can with it, mining the play as deeply, imaginatively, and emotionally as it can. Sideshow has terrific, bombastic material with Cain’s 9 Circles, and gives it a devastating, jaw-droppingly excellent production, one of the best of this already rich Chicago theatrical year, with an unforgettable central performance by Andrew Goetten as Cain’s troubled grunt protagonist. If you love Chicago theater (and you wouldn’t be reading my blog if you didn’t), you’ll be a fool to miss 9 Circles.

There are many gut-wrenching stories coming out of the protracted, unfortunate Iraq war, and Cain tells one of them:  a 19 year old soldier is accused of the rape and killing of a 14 year old girl in Iraq and the killing of her family, including her toddler sister. He has structured 9 Circles similarly to Dante’s Inferno, but instead of the soldier’s descent into hell, the play is a descent into his eventual punishment, which uncovers both the truth about the incident and more significantly the truth about how the US has conscripted troubled teens to comprise an always-diminishing army in an unending war (hell is truth, then).  Director Marti Lyons tells the nine scenes, which comprise Private Reeves’ interactions with a variety of people (from his public defender to an Army psychiatrist to a pastor out to “save his soul”) briskly, tightly-coiled like a package of dynamite waiting to explode.  Cain’s writing is indeed explosive; asking pointed questions about whose responsibility is it not just for the futile war, but for sending emotionally troubled, immature youths to fight it. And Lyons is immensely aided by her design team: Mac Vaughey’s ascetic lighting design and Christopher M. LaPorte’s vivid, meticulous sound design effectively highlight Cain’s riveting writing.

Frankly, some of this writing does come off more like liberal debate speeches (the trial scene near the end of the play seems more preachy then argumentative) versus naturalistic dialogue, but no one in the audience will argue with its potency and emotional wallop. And especially since Cain’s words are being performed by a truly exceptional ensemble: Jude Roche, Andy Luther, and Amanda Powell portray a variety of characters that Private Reeves encounters but each characterization is so carefully and distinctly-crafted, so nuanced, that you sometimes feel you are watching different actors (I had to blink twice to figure out that it is indeed Luther playing the public defender since the mannerisms, the gait, and the vocal inflections are different from a similar lawyer character he plays earlier in the show).  9 Circles contains some of the best acting, both individually and as an ensemble, that I’ve seen this year in the city, whether Equity house or storefront theater.

The ensemble that surrounds him delivers outstanding work, but Andrew Goetten’s Private Reeves is just stunning and sensational, truly one of the best performances of the year. The Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones admiringly calls him a young Daniel Craig, for me, he is more like a younger, more clean-cut Joaquin Phoenix, with the same intensity and ferociousness. The brilliance of Goetten’s multi-layered performance allows the audience to feel a whole gamut of emotions for Private Reeves, from disgust at what he has done to sympathy for his troubled background to anger at how he is treated by the military to guilt that we as a country have sent people like him, barely-educated, emotionally-scarred, to fight a fight he can’t win. He gives a truly inhabited performance, emotionally exhausting but always mesmerizing. I can’t forget many elements of Goetten’s performance, from his Texas drawl to his ferocious anger to his no-holds barred emotional and physical nakedness, but what I remember the most is the fear in his eyes: this Private Reeves despite his bravado, his mental and emotional instability, his butch, bullying persona is deep down a frightened kid, thrust into circumstances he doesn’t understand and doesn’t have control of. And as Cain points out these frightened kids are the ones we as country have sent out to kill and to die while the politicians and the rest of us watch the war’s images comfortably from our living rooms.

9 Circles is onstage at the DCASE Storefront Theatre, 66 E. Randolph St., until October 6. Run to get your tickets now!


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