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9 Circles. On March 12, 2006, five soldiers stationed at a dangerous traffic checkpoint in an area of Iraq that the military called the Triangle of Death entered the nearby home of a fourteen-year-old girl named Abeer Qasim Hamza. Steven Green, a private, took her parents and six-year-old sister into an adjoining room and shot them while two of his fellow soldiers raped Abeer. Then he went into the room where she was struggling, and raped and shot her. Afterward, the soldiers set Abeer's body on fire. The protagonist of Bill Cain's 9 Circles

 

is called Daniel Reeves, and the plot tracks very closely with Green's known actions and experiences; Sean Scrutchins, a newcomer to the Denver stage, gives a breath-stopping performance as Reeves. The play, loosely shaped by Dante's Inferno, is clear-eyed, tightly written and tough-minded. It is also filled with grace. You are not asked to identify in any shallow or sentimental way with Reeves — only to recognize his humanity as he endures his descent into hell, resisting, jeering, grieving, sometimes even joking, refusing for a long, long time to acknowledge the immensity of what he's done, and encountering on his way lawyers, a priest and the Army counselor to whom he confided his desire to kill everyone and from whom he received in response a bottle of pills and a slip permitting his return to battle. Cain's imagery is spare but telling. Intellect and emotion twin in his exploration of the nature of evil — and ultimately the play implies that at its root, evil is the inability to empathize with others, to feel another's pain. This failure is at the heart of war, as it is at the heart of individual wrongdoing. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through February 18, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed January 19.

Becky's New Car. Playwright Steve Dietz's dialogue tends to be smart and his imagination fresh. He likes to come up with intricate plot twists, bend theatrical form and refuse the audience a satisfyingly tied-up — or even entirely comprehensible — ending. Becky's New Car is a light work, with a plot that comes close to conventional and just a couple of those dizzying, absurdist Dietzian moments. Becky's life is straightforward and painfully ordinary. She lives with her roofer husband, Joe, and college-student son, Chris, and works far too many hours at a car dealership. In one of the play's most charming conceits, she invites the audience into her reality. She gives them tasks: collate some of her papers, help her get dressed to go out — oh, and would anyone like a soda? The interaction with the audience is unpretentious, friendly and low-key. Hyper-wealthy Walter arrives one evening just as Becky is about to leave work, wanting to buy nine expensive new cars as gifts for his employees. He's newly widowed and a little adrift, and he promptly falls for Becky — who he assumes is widowed, too. After trying once or twice to disabuse him of the notion, she gives in to his fantasy. And so begins her attempt to live two lives. But once he's introduced all these interesting people, the playwright himself seems to lose interest, and the characterizations go south along with the plotting. As the writing weakens, some of the actors respond with broader, less subtle performances. Overall, the play is fun to watch, but it doesn't particularly resonate once you've left the theater. Presented by Vintage Theatre through February 19, 2119 East 17th Avenue, 303-839-1361, www.vintagetheatre.com. Reviewed January 26.

The Elephant Man. You couldn't find a more fitting interpreter for Bernard Pomerance's play The Elephant Man than the Physically Handicapped Actors and Musical Artists League. The play tells the story of Joseph Merrick, a man born with hideous deformities: spongy masses of flesh, protuberances of bone, a head far too big for his body, a slobbering gap where his mouth should have been. Abandoned as a child to the Dickensian brutality of a workhouse, he was eventually exhibited widely as a freak. I have seen the play presented as primarily a commentary on the smug blindness of the Victorian era, but in PHAMALY's hands, the focus is on the lonely plight of those excluded from society and the existential pain they feel — a pain with which many of the PHAMALY actors, subjected constantly to the unthinking cruelty of people who flinch away or treat them as less than human, are intimately acquainted. It is Merrick's fate to be cordoned off from the rest of society, but the society from which he's outlawed is far from flawless itself. After being abandoned by the huckster showman exhibiting him, he is rescued by Dr. Frederick Treves, whose motives are decidedly mixed: He wants to help this filthy, suffering and abandoned being, but he also wants to further his own research and reputation. The only one who treats the young man with real human warmth is an actress, Mrs. Kendal. As a professional illusionist herself, Mrs. Kendal understands fully that Merrick's ugly body is only a mask obscuring the creativity and tenderness of his soul, and the two become genuine friends. The story of The Elephant Man is told in a patchwork of scenes, each one captioned like an exhibit at a freak show; the implication is that in a sense, all of the characters — as well as we, the watchers — are freaks. Presented by PHAMALY through February 4, Aurora Fox Arts Center, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora, 303-739-1970, www.phamaly.org. Reviewed January 19.

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