1, 2, 3, 4… Clickety-clack, clickety-clack…
Our drill sergeant barks at us, her voice reverberates against the cold marble walls of the mausoleum. My fellow soldiers and I do as we’re told, marching in time with the refrain, heading off to war. I’m not nervous, only melancholy – haunted by the echoes of my memories, other times, whispers wafting through the hallways. Things will not end well for me. In times of war, they rarely end well for anyone…
The Speakeasy Society, coming off their brilliant ten-chapter The Kansas Collection, has remounted their acclaimed The Johnny Cycle – once a trilogy, but now reformulated as a single two-hour immersive experience. Guests do not need any prior knowledge of the previous installments to enjoy this track-based, participatory experience; the performance stands on its own in the eerie setting of the Mountain Veiw Mausoleum in Altadena, CA. The Johnny Cycle remount places guests as the titular Johnny – a fictional soldier in WWI who has lost his sight, hearing, voice, and limbs during the war – who is reliving and questioning his fractured life through vignettes of memories, dreams, and hopes that never came to be.
On the surface, The Johnny Cycle remount is a story about the tragic, fictional Johnny putting his author and creator, Dalton Trumbo, on trial for the atrocities Johnny faced in life. As Johnny, participants question Trumbo and ask if the brutality was worth the anti-war point Trumbo was trying to make in his novel, Johnny Got His Gun. Trumbo chose to use Johnny as a symbol for the atrocities of war, while Johnny chooses to embody the indomitable human spirit and the will to live – even in the face of adversity. This idea of choice is peppered throughout the experience in the moments when guests, as Johnny, can choose to act, or not. Participants can choose how they feel about Trumbo and the life he created for Johnny; guests can choose whether they make Trumbo suffer for his actions; and Johnny can choose which memories and characters to follow. However, even in these moments of agency that the audience is given, they cannot change the overall outcome; Johnny’s story has already been written.
“All time is all time” is a recurring refrain that echoes through The Johnny Cycle remount. Johnny, blind, deaf, immobile, and unable to speak, is only able to live inside his own head, giving this narrative an non-linear flow of time. As Johnny, guests relive his memories, his thoughts, and even those of Trumbo, in Johnny’s future. Just as Johnny’s life circles his head ad infinitum, Johnny’s story will be read over and over in Trumbo’s novel, never changing, never breaking free of what has already been written. On a much larger scale, “all time is all time” mirrors modern-day politics and warfare. As Johnny’s superior officer says, there will always be a majority in a population, and that majority will always be “right.” This “us versus them” mentality has been the source of conflict since the beginning of time and will unfortunately continue. The cycle of power that Trumbo warned against in his novel will forever repeat.
The Johnny Cycle remount is track-based – the audience is broken up into groups to experience smaller scenes before reconvening for larger moments. Some guests are even pulled aside by characters for more intimate and emotional one-on-one scenes. This type of structure creates multiple threads for guests to follow; the rabbit hole of Johnny’s life branches and twists back in on itself, creating the opportunity for multiple revisits so that guests can uncover more of the rich, layered narrative. While the tracks are pre-determined, they also contain some level of unpredictability depending on where the participant is standing or sitting. There is no specific track dedicated to Johnny’s life or Trumbo’s life, as all time is all time. Instead, characters randomly point to guests, insisting that they follow them along a new path of discovery. This frantic way of splitting up the audience is akin to Johnny’s splintering memory; you never know where you will end up. The audience experience will differ each time they attend, but the questions The Johnny Cycle remount asks will remain the same. Will guests have different answers upon subsequent viewings?
Performed in the sprawling Mountain View Mausoleum, The Johnny Cycle remount surrounds audiences with those who have died, punctuating the questions of life and death presented in the performance. The location, while beautifully eerie and appropriate, serves to enhance the narrative. The cold marble of the mausoleum reminds us that the dead constantly surround us; that tragedy is everywhere, even if we don’t see or experience it directly. However, the location does pose a problem: the noise echoes off the stone, bleeding into other scenes. This may be intentional though; the confusion of what guests should focus on stems from Johnny’s inner turmoil and fading memories. Do we pay attention to Johnny’s past, his mother wailing for her son? Do we follow a fellow soldier’s orders to march? Do we focus on the laughter coming from a surprise birthday party in the future? As the voices float by us, as do they float through Johnny’s confused mind.
The Johnny Cycle remount explodes to life with cast members from previous installments as well as those familiar to The Kansas Collection. Because guests are separated into various tracks and / or pulled aside for one-on-one scenes, not everyone will get to experience every member of this large cast, however, every performer is top-notch. Each actor plays an amalgam of characters – a perfectly imperfect blend of Johnny’s past, present and future, as well as Trumbo and his real-life peers. The actors begin in a campy Hollywood opening, only to dive deep into the people who make up Johnny’s subconscious – and they succeed with flying colors. Michael Bates and Zan Headley expertly oscillate between ribbing fellow soldier Johnny during bootcamp to recounting their own tragic ends. Jenny Curtis, as Johnny’s mother, leaves a lasting impression as her wails for her missing son cut through the chorus of overlapping dialogue. As brothel worker Lucky, Bianca Ruiz-Brokcl embodies a tenderness and bittersweet urge to help soldiers feel at home during their time overseas – if only for one last time. John McCormick, as Johnny’s superior, taps into a gruff vulnerability when questioning how people really saw him. And Matthew Bamberg-Johnson, as a lively Trumbo, makes it easy to root for him, even when on trial for being a Communist. Each actor deftly shifts through guests-as-Johnny’s world, floating in and out seamlessly with no regard for time or location.
Further, The Speakeasy Society is particularly clever in how they immerse their audiences. Through the use of audio tracks, they give audiences just enough back-story to whet their appetites before they come to the full experience. For The Johnny Cycle, a 20-minute audio recording sets up the piece by introducing audiences to Trumbo, fictional Johnny, and even the Johnny participants will take the role of. Guests are further immersed as a dog-tag is placed around their neck upon arrival, and the characters repeatedly call the audience members “Johnny,” making no mistake about whose story this is. It is all of our story.
The Speakeasy Society’s The Johnny Cycle is a multi-layered, politically relevant, and nuanced production about the importance of life, the search for the meaning of it all, and the very human cost of war. The level of sheer skill of the creative team and performers rises to this challenging occasion, balancing the many non-linear and location-based obstacles. The brilliantly evocative Johnny Cycle is worth asking questions about, worth the emotions it evokes, and worth experiencing; a beautiful tribute to the human spirit.
Find more information about The Speakeasy Society on their website or Facebook page, contribute to their Indie GoGo campaign here, purchase tickets to The Johnny Cycle remount here, and get tickets to their concurrently running immersive show at Two Bit Circus, Under the Big Top: Atlas, here. Check out our Event Guide for more immersive entertainment throughout the year.