I consider myself an expert in many things. I do. Certainly I can navigate my way around a play and its content. Surely, I can muster an interpretation, right? But, it would seem that Renegade Theatre’s 9 Circles has presented me with a challenge. A good one, but a challenge none the less. I am no expert in what it takes to be a soldier. No expert by any means in war. No expert in living in a country at war. I do not know what it was like for my grandfather to land on the beaches of Normandy or what it was like for him to have survived when so many did not. I do not know what it was like for my brother-in-law to serve for over a year in Iraq under a commander that ended up with 26 congressional inquiries against him for putting his men where they were never supposed to be. I do not know and I am no expert. And, this lack of expertise is a bit unnerving. But, then again, this is a show about unnerving things, and, seriously, I’m at Renegade, what do you expect?
Our main character, a soldier in Iraq, is really quite compelling on the page and he’s portrayed in a stunningly captivating way on the stage. As a character he is smart, yet troubled. His options are limited and the tragedy is he knows it. He knows it is quite possible that he’s not all together, but he questions who can be when they are thrust into the volatile, psychologically invasive hell of war. Our actors’ portrayal is 100% convincing, entirely human, splendidly real, and frighteningly persuasive. With him I felt I was hearing truths and getting glimpses into realities, both ugly and disheartening.
The supporting cast members play multiple roles (not my favorite device, but it is what it is) and each of the actors definitely seem to have one character that they really connect with and were born to play. The other parts in their repertoire were less natural perhaps, but by no means were they played poorly.
Like their human counterparts, the set and other technical elements work great in some of the scenes and not as convincingly in others. How the set is used isn’t consistent and that inconsistency breaks up a solid foundation of realism which helps us to follow along with the quick pace and the change of time, location and characters. What works to suggest or set a scene in one “circle” didn’t work for me in others and that bothered me. Certainly there must have been some intentional conceptual “purgatory” that was trying to be created, but I felt like it wasn’t the right way or the right amount. I would have had plenty of appropriate “unsettled” feelings with the topics and performance alone without needing it to be mirrored in inconsistent or ambiguous choices with regard to set and the actors’ interactions with the set.
There were moments where my own inexperience with things got the better of me too. At one point a military lawyer in his dress uniform puts his hat on the ground. This struck me as highly disrespectful and unlikely, not to mention obviously distracting. Our soldier take boots on and off without socks which also struck me as odd. Maybe a logistical move to reduce a scene change time, but it pulled me out of an otherwise perfectly good moment each time. In all honestly this may just be my prejudice/ignorance; it may not have any validity from a factual standpoint with regard to military conduct, but worth a mention I think in case anyone else is struck by it.
It was the final scene that probably perturbed me the most and, not from the plot perspective, but in the way it was presented. I’m sworn to a no spoiler review, but I have to say, aside from exquisite lighting and the continuance of high-caliber acting, I’d rather the end scene had been presented in a much more realistic style rather than a theatrical style. This is largely a playwright’s criticism, not much Renegade could have done about it, but still, a stronger ending could have really made this piece soar even higher.
This is an hour and 45 minutes with no intermission and my initial thought was this might be too much. For all my hesitancy (and lack of expertise) 9 Circles does not disappoint. No matter your feeling on the military or war, no matter your political leanings or your life experience, this play tells a personal story and asks good questions. Questions with no answers I’m afraid, but then again I don’t feel it seeks answers to these questions, just to explore circumstances and consequences. These questions may not have answers, but the show gets 4 out of 5 intense jewels in the tiara for another great exploration and dare I say… execution. 9 Circles plays at the Historic Hoover Theatre in San Jose through November 26th.