Experience The Trauma Of War At This New Immersive Play Set In A Historic Church
A new immersive play from The Speakeasy Society has you living out the horrors of war from the view of an ill-fated solider while walking, scurrying and kneeling through nearly all parts of an ornate church.
Johnny: The Shell is a continuation of the Speakeasy Society's The Johnny Cycle. The play is somewhat-based on the novel and film Johnny Got His Gun, both written by Dalton Trumbo. The first installment of the Johnny Cycle series ran last year, but guests who missed it should still be able to follow along and become engaged with this show. (You can read a review of the first installment, The Quick and the Dead, here.)
You begin this journey standing outside the doors of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Glendale. Built in 1948 (though the congregation dates as far back as the late 1800s), it has all the trappings of a beautiful, historic church—stained glass windows, a lush courtyard with a bubbling fountain, high ceilings and a massive pipe organ. It is important that you arrive early, as, due to the nature of this performance, no late arrivals will be admitted. You enter the church one-by-one and when it's your turn your identity will be stripped from you. You're Johnny now, and it's time to say goodbye to everyone you've ever loved before heading off to fill your very American, and as it turns out, quite Christian duty. You're being shipped off to fight and perhaps die for the red, white and blue in World War I. You are ushered to a pew and told to have a seat and perhaps read a poem. A mesmerizing dance occurs on all sides, as soldiers slowly climb over the pews and writhe down the aisles. Soon enough, however, you and your fellow Johnnies will be split into separate units assigned to guard different posts. Depending on where you are sent, a different piece of the story will be revealed to you. You rarely just sit and watch a scene unfold. You might be asked to kneel and pray, for instance, or to complete a patriotic arts and crafts project.
In that way, it's easy to feel immersed, but also lost. Characters will be conversational in some moments, but will engage in abstract dances in others. The piece is similar to another recent immersive play: The Wilderness' The Day Shall Declare It. Both works draw from more narratively straightforward source materials to create thematic works that tease at structure, but rely heavily on movement and personal connections between actors and individual audience members. Johnny manages to be even more difficult to pin down, as you will not have the opportunity to experience every scene or line of dialogue. You will see segments of some scenes as you're whisked by to attend completely different ones, and some you might miss entirely. For instance, I managed to extrapolate that a relationship existed between two characters simply based on dialogue, but I never saw them together in one scene. A friend of mine who went the following night told me one of the most moving scenes, for him, was a scene in which the two interact—one that I never saw. If you find yourself particularly entranced, you may wish to see Johnny more than once.
While you might start your journey in a group of ten or so, you should be prepared to be singled out, as audience members may be pulled aside and taken to different parts of the venue for one-on-one encounters. I found myself at one point strolling with a proud military officer through a courtyard as he grappled with his tumultuous feelings.
In a scene that made me truly uncomfortable, I sat on a bench with a shy, nervous boy—whose number has just been called—as he recounted the first and only love of his young life. We sat together on a bench looking out at real-life folks walking their dogs down Brand Boulevard. He followed up the story with an awkward proposition that caused me a lot of confusion. Everyone had been calling me Johnny since the moment I picked up my ticket, yet in this interaction I was very much brought back to present reality. Perhaps this is why the scene made me so uncomfortable. When we parted ways, he gave me a scrap of paper with a phone number on it. I called it the following day, and yet another fraction of the story was revealed.
Various characters may also give you other objects that can later be redeemed for bonus scenes, including one that anyone who watched Trumbo—or who has spent much time in Grand Junction, Colorado—will recognize. Should you have the opportunity to redeem an object for the extra scene, you should definitely do it, as it's one of the best out of the lot.
There may be some nudity, depending on which scenes you are drawn into, and you should be comfortable with walking, standing, dancing and kneeling at various points throughout the 75-minute show. It is not a particularly uplifting play, though there are moments of humor.
You can certainly go into the play without any prior knowledge of its source materials and still have a good time. But to truly understand the nuances of Johnny, you'll want to go back and revisit the history of a legendary Hollywood screenwriter, his subsequent blacklisting, and maybe watch the video for a Metallica song. Stop here if you're not interested in any of that.
Dalton Trumbo appears as a character in The Johnny Cycle, but in real life he was an author and screenwriter. In 1938, he wrote Johnny Got His Gun, an anti-war novel about a young soldier named Joe Bonham who is shipped off to World War I only to lose his arms, legs, eyes, ears, teeth and tongue an artillery shell. He is mostly stationary, confined to a hospital bed with a tube that allows him to feed and breathe. He can't see or hear and can only communicate by hitting his head in Morse code against his pillow. Joe, throughout the course of the novel, recalls his old life as he suffers in his own private hell, recalling his family, his past loves, his friends.
According to em>The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies, Trumbo had heard about a Canadian solider who lost his limbs, eyesight, hearing and the ability to eat by any means but a tube in WWI. The Prince of Wales spoke of encountering the man in a Canadian military hospital, saying, "The only way I could salute, the only way I could communicate with that man, was to kiss his cheek."
In 1971, Trumbo wrote and directed a film adaptation of his novel. It starred Timothy Bottoms at Joe Bonham and Kathy Fields as Kareen, the woman Bonham had been dating prior to being sent to war. Clips from the film were used in the music video for Metallica's "One," which can be found on their 1988 album …And Justice For All. The song was based on the novel, which explains its extremely depressing lyrics: "Hold my breath as I wish for death / Oh please, God, wake me."
Trumbo achieved critical success, but in his personal life, things weren't so smooth. He was one of ten industry players—known as the Hollywood Ten—who denounced the way the the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was investigating allegations of communism in the film industry in 1947. He served 10 months in jail in 1950, and left the U.S. for Mexico after his release, blacklisted from the industry. In Mexico, he wrote numerous screenplays, including Academy Award winner The Brave One, for which the award at the time went to "Robert Rich," a pseudonym.
Trumbo returned to the spotlight in the 1960 after being publicly credited with writing the screenplays for Otto Preminger's Exodus and Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus. John F. Kennedy's crossing of the American Legion picket line to see Spartacus was seen as a watershed moment in the end of the blacklist. Trumbo was allowed back into the Writers Guild of America, West and eventually received his Oscar for The Brave One in 1975.
Trumbo did not receive his Academy Award for Roman Holiday until after his death—that award had been given to screenwriter Ian McLellan Hunter, who had agreed to serve as a front for Trumbo. The Academy ended up having to make a new statuette for Trumbo because McKellen's son, Tim Hunter, decided he wouldn't hand it over. Here's an interesting connection: Tim Hunter is a director who has worked on the TV shows such as Twin Peaks and Mad Men. He also directed episodes of Breaking Bad, which starred Bryan Cranston as antihero Walter White. Cranston was nominated for an Oscar in 2016 for his portrayal of Dalton Trumbo in the 2015 biopic Trumbo.
The Johnny Cycle: Part II — The Shell runs now through Aug. 31. Performances are held at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, located at 1020 N. Brand Blvd. in Glendale. Tickets are $25-50 and are available here.