Big risks pay off for MAT-Havre in the dark drama ‘Nine Circles’
Making theater work effectively sometimes comes down to the risks in the performance and how well the team putting on the show executes them.
In “Nine Circles,” Montana Actors’ Theatre-Havre took several big risks that ended up paying off for the independent theater company.
For one, the story came from a little-known playwright, Bill Cain.
Cain’s only other plays were the critically acclaimed, yet largely unknown works “How to Write a New Book for the Bible,” and “Equivocation.”
Having seen the difference in attendance when you present a story that’s not by a beloved playwright and one by a person who is, the fact that MAT-Havre filled the seats nearly every evening speaks volumes toward their execution.
Another big risk the company took was making the decision to present the story in the round, which, if done poorly can make bad theater REALLY bad because not only are you literally sitting only a few feet from all of the actors, you’re also up close to the other audience members.
If they’re groaning and looking bored, even if you’re trying to enjoy yourself, it makes it that much harder to focus on what’s happening because that negative energy can spill out everywhere.
And then finally, the third, and perhaps biggest risk “Nine Circles” presented for MAT is that the story takes a hard, real look at an American soldier who’s committed heinous crimes while serving in Iraq.
Pvt. Daniel Reeves isn’t a hero in the typical sense of the word. He spends most of the play admitting how he raped a young girl, killed an innocent dog and that his actions likely got three of his fellow soldiers killed.
When you take risks like that with a play, you better have the ability to deliver on them, and for the most part, MAT did just that.
Firstly, let’s talk about the treatment of the script, a solid piece of play writing that would make for a compelling story on the page, much like a John Clancy novel.
Reeves, played by Havre native Chad Zuelke, comes across as a strong, hot-headed, unsympathetic jerk at times, and at other times can appear to be a victim of circumstance, a man suffering from his own demons – both psychological and the problems with his upbringing that led him down this dangerous path.
You wouldn’t think you’d feel any sympathy for someone who’s done the things Reeves freely admits to, but you do and a big part of that comes from Zuelke’s portrayal. It certainly helps that Zuelke is an Iraq war veteran himself, and he should be proud of the job he did with this character.
He plays Reeves as a loyal, complex man with a past filled with secrets. It’s not that he regrets his decisions, but more that he’s reluctantly drawn to share his side of the story.
The most powerful scenes come when his defending attorney, portrayed wonderfully by Matt Twedt, keeps telling him that the case against him is a weak one because they have little actual proof that he committed these crimes.
He tells Reeves that they A) don’t have any kind of weapon, B) any proof that he raped her, C) any unbiased testimony or D) any witnesses that aren’t also being accused of similar things.
The whole premise of the play is a solid one, as well, in fact.
The script only casually references the nine circles of hell portrayed in Dante’s Inferno. Reeves starts in the first circle, and as he progresses, the characters announce the following circles as Reeves changes into a different set of clothing. Having him change clothing is a clever way to set the scenes apart.
After the show, Jay Pyette, the play’s co-director with Andi Daniel, said before they went into rehearsals, the table reads were a crucial part to help all the actors prepare for their roles.
He said that they diverged from the script in several places, most notably at the start when all of the actors appear on stage together. An astute viewer might have picked up on how perhaps the glances each of the characters gave Reeves represented one of the circles of hell. I thought it was a bit too obtuse to pick up on, but afterwards Pyette said that indeed was the intention of that scene.
Doing this show in the round also meant that the blocking and staging had to be carefully considered. There were only a few instances when it felt like a scene was happening with one of the characters facing the opposite direction of where we were sitting.
This, I believe, comes from each of the actors knowing full well how to portray your character not to simply one view, the front, but to four, and how to do it effectively.
When done well, it draws you into the story even closer because you’re seeing the action happen as if you were a fly on a wall.
Aside from Zeulke’s top-notch job, the other breakout performance of the night came from Bethany Mason, who played an attorney who volunteers to take Reeves’ case in the fifth or sixth circle, if memory serves me correctly.
She lets Reeves know that she doesn’t approve of what he’s done, but she’s there to defend him and that he has the power to turn the tide of the war because if he lets her take his case, which he ultimately refuses, she can use his guilt and his crimes, to dig up sympathy for the enemy from the country’s leaders, and, in turn start to end the war.
It’s an interesting approach, and it contrasts nicely with Reeves’ thoughts on his situation as well as the preacher’s thoughts, whom he encounters in the third circle.
The preacher, we learn, has deal with his own demons as he’s an ex alcoholic who’s still addicted to pornography.
Jesus, the preacher tells Reeves, will set him free even if he doesn’t believe he deserves to get that chance.
Martin Holt, the actor who played the preacher, gave an authentic performance. I actually believed that he was a sympathetic pastor who’s gone through his own tribulations.
Pyette said Holt was a last-minute substitution for the preacher role, and he did a solid job even without as much preparation as the rest of the cast.
Finally, having watched shows in the region for the past five years, I’ve come to realize how rare it was for a play to hit all the right notes. This one, however, might be the closest show where that’s happened. It was a nice touch, as well, to have a portion of the proceeds be donated to the Wounded Warrior Project.
“Nine Circles” left me with lots of questions about what it means to be a soldier, what it means to fight in a war, to kill people who may or may not have been threats, and what might happen when it all comes back to you on your own judgement day.
If you saw this show and if it made you question even one thing, I think the directors can say it successfully did it’s job.
I had a great time watching it unfold and I look forward to what MAT-Havre has in store next.