Ripples from Hell: “9 Circles” in Boston & Dallas

Ever come out of a play as it’s “blossoming” its way across the country garnering admiration and accolades and suspect you have just seen a serious Tony and Pulitzer contender on its pathway to artistic glory? Circle your wagons at The MAC. If you don’t make it over to the McKinney Avenue Contemporary Sunday night June 5 to attend the reading of Bill Cain’s 9 Circles, part of the 13th Annual New Works Festival at Kitchen Dog Theater, you’ll not get to experience one of the finest new dramatic plays currently earning high critical praise, audience approval and major writing awards for its playwright on the regional/national performance circuit. They’re only presenting it one time, folks, so clear your schedules.

In April I attended a media conference in Boston. I had time in the evenings to catch a few plays, so I chose The Merchant of Venice with F. Murray Abraham in the title role and Cain’s 9 Circles making its East Coast premiere at Boston’s Publick Theatre. I knew nothing about Cain’s play. But its title reference to Dante’s Inferno (the nine circles of Hell) intrigued me. Hard to beat Dante for theatricality. I had no idea what a superior literary, theatrical delight I would experience.

“You did the unimaginable, made them feel the pain of their enemy.’’

An intimate, under street level thrust-ish space, not unlike Dallas’ Undermain Theatre, with cool recesses for creative percolation and the sort of audience-performance engagement that lends itself to enraptured mutual transcendence: that’s Boston’s Publick Theatre9 Circles: minimal set pieces, a bank of government-issue lockers framing upstage, and an open playing area, lit from above as one clearly delineated circle. Three actors: one plays a US Iraq war veteran; a mature man plays a commanding officer, a priest and several attorneys; a younger woman plays another soldier, a public defender and an army psychiatrist. The Iraq war veteran has committed a horrific crime of murder and rape (based on an actual event).  Through nine realistic scene interactions steeped in psychological thriller ambience with occasional direct address to the audience (as if that body composes the soldier’s judge and jury) the tale of his “descent” unfolds, ending brilliantly, but agonizingly, as the lives of most murderer-rapists do. Along the way the audience peers into the heart, mind and soul of the soldier and sees him as a military system pawn and scapegoat as well as an agent of evil, akin to a rabid dog. The play whips by without intermission. At its conclusion, the Boston audience (sophisticated, well-heeled, attuned, alert) sat for a moment in stunned awe then sprang to its feet as one movement with ecstatic, genuine applause. Personal, profound, contemporary in tempo and subject matter, 9 Circles is masterful in its vivid, classic portrayal of the scope of human experience. It’s a truly great play (how often can a critic actually SAY that?) with phenomenal opportunity for a director and actors with dimensional chops and stamina – I came away euphoric, tingling in amazement. As I got home to my Boston high-rise B&B share, I knew I longed to see 9 Circles in Dallas. I could imagine it at Kitchen Dog, and I pictured Cameron Cobb, Andrews Cope and Jenny Ledel involved artistically with the project. When I returned to Dallas, I mentioned the play to KDT’s Co-artistic Director Tina Parker; she told me a sister Denver company will produce it this next year. And then I learned it was included in the New Works Festival readings, with (shades of “Twilight Zone”) Cameron Cobb directing and Andrews Cope and Jenny Ledel performing. I can hardly wait.

9 Circles was performed with exceptional professional skill and artistry at Boston’s Publick Theatre March 17 through April 9, 2011, by Amanda Collins, Will McGarrahan and Jimi Stanton, directed by Eric Engel ( award-winning Artistic Director of Gloucester Stage Company) with lights and set by John Malinowski. Bill Cain’s 9 Circles was developed at the Ojai Playwright’s conference and South Coast Rep’s Pacific Playwright’s Festival. It made its world premiere at Marin Theatre Company where it was the unanimous choice for the 2010 Sky Cooper New American Play Prize and the winner of the $25,000 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award for 2011. The award recognizes playwrights for the best scripts that premiere professionally outside New York City during the previous calendar year, and is the largest annual monetary prize for an American play. Cain won the award in 2010, as well, with Equivocation.

In depth interview with Bill Cain, Jesuit priest, founder and former Artistic Director of the Boston Shakespeare Company:

Info and tickets to KDT’s 2011 13th Annual New Works Festival 

May 27-June 25:  214-953-1055

PHOTO: Craig Bailey/Perspective. Will McGarrahan and Jimi Stanton in Publick Theatre’s production

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