The Johnny Cycle: Part 2 – The Shell
Reviewed by Lyle Zimskind
The Speakeasy Society
Through August 13
When a work of art moves us with some uncanny personal resonance, one might imagine for a brief affected moment that it was created uniquely “just for me.” Or one could get this impression of being the uniquely intended audience for an artist’s performance when it truly isn’t being shared by any other person. In the Speakeasy Society’s latest immersive theater production, The Johnny Cycle: Part 2 – The Shell, staged in several indoor and outdoor spaces around the labyrinthine campus of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Glendale, no two theatergoers encounter the same series of events. At times any one of us may even find ourselves entirely alone with one of the characters, outside the immediate presence of any actors, theatergoers or other human souls.
Before we are even seated, every audience member is individually accosted by at least three different cast members in character. In these direct one-on-one interactions, we learn that each of us entrants to the performance is enlisted soldier Johnny, the play’s central figure. Then, shortly after an introductory monologue, we are led away in groups of three or four to participate in discrete scenes in various locations around the church grounds. Occasionally, as the evening progresses, an individual spectator may be led away by a specific character for a private dramatic encounter, and then returned to a different group than the one he or she has previously been peeled away from. At other times, even in the presence of our fellow theatrical witnesses, any one of us may suddenly become incorporated into the dramatic moments occurring around us.
Though I can’t account for what happened to any of the other 17 or 18 audience members at the performance I attended, I can say that at one point I was led blindfolded down a church side aisle toward my (Johnny’s) destruction by bombshell, with no one else there to witness the horror. Another time, after two audience members I was traveling with were encouraged to hurl projectiles at an unconscious enemy soldier, the character revived and I was pleaded with not to follow my instructions to do the same. (I heeded my conscience in the moment; you make your own decision if it comes to it.) Only a couple times were we all reunited for a momentary scene, experienced en masse before we got split up again.
The Speakeasy Society’s three-part “Johnny Cycle” is based on a 1938 Dalton Trumbo novel, Johnny’s Got His Gun. The first installment last year (“The Quick and the Dead”) was performed at an American Legion post in Pasadena. Trumbo himself makes an appearance in this second part, “The Shell,” but most of the action (at least on my own guided trajectory) takes place within the universe of a U.S. Army World War I fighting unit circa 1918. None of the action is actually set in a church, so when we move from St. Mark’s main chapel to its courtyard to its kitchen to its library to its residential quarters, we are always meeting new army personnel in a location somewhere near the theater of war.
More impressionistic than narrative, the progression of interactive scenes envelops us in an overwhelming atmosphere of suffering and impending military violence. Here and there, we may recognize a recurring character or two that we meet along the way, but a consistent through-plot is hardly the point of this visceral presentation. Our own role is to let ourselves be thrust into the implications and aftermath of war and to delve into its venal politics from the assigned vantage point of Johnny’s memory and perhaps of Trumbo, who authored his story.
Co-directed by two of the Speakeasy Society’s three artistic directors, Genevieve Gearhart and Julianne Just (and written by Just and Chris Porter), Johnny: The Shell provides an inordinately powerful interpretation of the insanity, confusion, pain and evil of war. Despite the grimness of the depicted events, the production is also undeniably fun to take part in as we not only don’t know what’s going to happen, but we don’t even know where we’re going to be or who we’re going to be with, from one minute to the next.
While the current production is the second in a trilogy whose first part we didn’t happen to see, we never felt that made a difference in our understanding. With so many scenes unfolding in different locations all at once, of course, attending this “Part 2: The Shell” inherently means not undergoing a lot of it. The experience, though, is not to be missed.
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 1020 N. Brand Blvd, Glendale, Thurs.-Fri.. 8:30 p.m.; Sat., August 13 (closing night) 8:00 & 9:30 p.m.; johnnytheshell.bpt.me. Running time: 75-95 minutes with no intermission.