By LAUREN KOSKE
(WARRENSBURG, Mo., digitalBURG) — I watched the second to last performance of “9 Circles” in the intimate Blackbox Theatre in Nickerson Hall Sunday, Feb 19, surrounded by a crowd of nearly 70 people.
The room was strangely warm and a cool breeze seeped through the open windows as audience members fanned their faces with the playbills. A series of songs by the American alternative rock group Twenty-One Pilots were played about 10 minutes before the show’s scheduled performance time.
The music faded and the lights dimmed. The audience faced a rugged wall that began to show a video projection matched with the Twenty-One Pilots song, “Before You Start Your Day.”
The video presentation that preluded the production was breathtaking, and accompanied the performance perfectly. With beginning shots of a young infant smiling and laughing, to a contrasting array of news footage of the attacks on 9/11, the montage gave the audience an emotional context for the time period and events that the play addresses.
Once the video montage ended, cast members dressed in military garb charged the stage, simulating military combat with warm lighting mimicking the hot Iraq weather.
We were shown our story’s protagonist, Daniel Reeves (Grant Lesher), who is in every scene of the play.
The play centered around Reeves, who serves in a post 9/11 Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. At the beginning of the play, Reeves is dishonorably discharged from the military due to the war crimes he committed while overseas.
Mirroring the epic poem of Dante’s “Inferno,” the play was split into nine parts or “circles,” each dealing with the consequences and judgment for the heinous and disturbing acts that Reeves committed while enlisted.
Lesher’s performance and portrayal of Reeves was monumental, leaving audience members with a disturbing chill with nearly every line he delivered.
Lesher was not the only theatre student who showed their acting chops in this production. Sarah Bronson, Christopher Scott and Caleb Gazaway all took on the challenge of taking on several different roles each during the journey through the nine circles.
Reeves is diagnosed with a personality disorder by a military psychologist played by Bronson.
From the first, brutal scene of the play, Reeves proves to be a character that has the complete inability to feel compassion, sympathy or guilt for the acts he has committed.
I knew going in there would be original dance numbers set to music that was not in the play’s initial script. The original numbers were all set to the music of Twenty-One Pilots.
The dance numbers, performed with Lesher and four additional cast members, were completely original and thought-provoking, adding a contrasting visual to the two-hour play.
One element of the play I was not quite anticipating was the incorporation of music to the narrative of the performance.
After the first scene where the group of soldiers stormed the stage, they all retreated, but Reeves came back. “Fairly Local” by Twenty-One Pilots played and a microphone dropped from the ceiling as Reeves approached it.
The cast of dancers eventually came back out and performed a dance to this track, but Reeves stayed behind them, lip-syncing the song intensely while acting out another scene.
I found the lip-syncing to be rather distracting and out of place. The first scene was not the only time Reeves lip-synced to a song while people danced in the background.
The more the audience dives into the play, the more we get to learn about Reeves and his past. I discovered that this character that comes off as completely vile and narrow-minded, actually delivers several thought-provoking statements, and heartbreaking stories of what him and fellow soldiers had seen and experienced while serving in Iraq.
The play dives into the brutal and devious side of raw human nature. The value of life is a well present theme in the play, as is the conflict between good and evil. Psychologists and lawyers are shown throughout, earnestly seeking to understand Reeves and find out his motives for committing these terrorizing acts but are often left with no hope.
For most of the play, we are shown a character who has no remorse for what he has done – a character who says he has had a desire to kill his whole life. By the end of the play, we are shown a character pleading for his life in a haunting final monologue.
This production is very heavy on dialogue, which I would say is the play’s strong suit. It also ran about two hours, with no intermission. I think the play could shave off some of the time, making each circle a bit shorter, and still get the messages across that are important to the story.
“9 Circles” doesn’t present any flashy costumes, spacious sets or dramatic musical numbers. What it does deliver is a classic – yet innovative – message of the conflict between good and evil, life and death, with breathtaking and heartbreaking performances that leave audiences wondering – does the most inherent darkness in this world have even the slightest hope for light?