Don’t let go, Johnny.
Those words echoed in my head quite a bit on Saturday evening. This mantra, chanted not only by my inner monologue, but also by several people I encountered, even haunted my dreams.
Don’t. Let. Go.
This past weekend, I attended Speakeasy Society’s The Johnny Cycle: Part III – The Living, and it forever moved me. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the pleasure of attending the first two parts of The Johnny Cycle, but I have heard my friend Russell (of My Haunt Life) rave about them. So, when Part III – The Living was announced, I jumped on the chance to check it out. Especially since The Speakeasy Society has been knocking it out of the park this year with their Kansas Collection shows, so I definitely wanted to see how The Johnny Cycle compared.
Again, despite not seeing the previous two shows, no prior knowledge was needed for this one. Designed to be stand alone, I also received a wonderful prologue (in audio form) from the group that explained some things that might be handy to know for this show. Of course, it’s not necessary to hear it, but it did give me a deeper understanding of the story overall. The most you need to know is that the titular character, Johnny, is a solider during WWI and is stick in a place between life and death. Injured badly during the war, he clings to life in a hospital somewhere in Europe, and the show itself consists of what he sees in his mind.
Johnny isn’t always the most reliable narrator, of course. Not that I blame him, because anyone in his situation would be the same. But the he is doing his best to re-live the things that went wrong in his life, trying to make sense of these fragments, and somehow, find peace.
I’m sounding purposely vague here, and with good reason; this show is all about Johnny’s journey, and learning from his past. There is a lot of dense material presented to you during the course of the show, and that is by no means a detriment. In fact, I found myself being pulled deeper and deeper into Johnny’s world as the show went on. Not only did I learn more about his relationship with his friends, his family, his fellow soldiers…but also with his creator.
Since The Johnny Cycle began three years ago, the shows were based on Dalton Trumbo’s book Johnny Got His Gun, and from what I have heard, followed them nicely. Here, the lines between fiction and reality are blended, as Trumbo himself is a character within the show. What is amazing to me is not only how wonderfully his own, real story is woven into the narrative, but also how he interacts with his own creation.
One of the biggest themes of the show (at least, from my perspective) is accountability. Who is responsible for all these men dying during the war? Who is responsible for Trumbo not giving Johnny a better ending or giving his family more closure in his writing? Who is responsible for the terrible things that happen to us at the end of the day? Trumbo’s own life, especially dealing with the McCarthyism of his day, mix beautifully with Johnny’s own story, creating a symmetry that was unexpected but also quite fitting.
For most of this show, Speakeasy casts the audience themselves as Johnny. The characters address you as such. They help you, Johnny, relive your memories, replaying some of them over and over again, not only in an attempt for Johnny to come to terms with them…but also for the memories to come to terms with themselves. Because they KNOW they are memories. They know that the show is true to its name; it is indeed a cycle. One that they are forced to keep reliving, over and over again, until something gives. Until Johnny makes a decision. Or can he even do that for himself? Johnny is a man in turmoil; trapped in a state he didn’t ask for, unable to communicate the way he always has, and forced to re-live his own painful memories again and again.
I felt as if every single person who attended the show on Saturday had a moment or two with the actors, which was no easy feat. There were moments where all of us, perhaps around 25 people, were all together in a room, involved in the scene that was unfolding. However, there were plenty of times where everyone was split up, and went off with individual characters to watch particular moments of Johnny’s life unfold for them. No, not just unfold before them…actually LIVE those moments. I found out later that, the way the tracks were split up, there essentially are three different shows running at once here. I only saw one third of the show, following Johnny’s life on the battlefield itself. This is mind boggling to me…In fact, it makes me want to go back and see the OTHER aspects of Johnny’s story.
But this also brings into focus the logistics of mounting this show; every moment was timed out perfectly. When groups split off and joined together again, there were no moments of nothingness, waiting around. The way all the stories and tracks weaved together was masterful, and shows how wonderfully planned the entire show was.
I want to mention the story itself again; there is a lot of heavy content here, and despite the very light (and often comedic) opening scene, the themes throughout the rest of the show are very, very emotional. I will admit that at two separate sequences during the show, I teared up. It really, really got to me, and Johnny’s story touched me in such a way that I cannot even explain. A sequence set in the hospital was especially moving, and really took my breath (and vision) away.
I want to point out the particular actors that made the show come to life and praise them for their amazing portrayals, but every single one of them was fantastic. Of special note were Jonathan Bangs and Zach Davidson (as Francis and Jersey respectively), two soldiers I spent a lot of the time with. Both were incredible actors who really, really brought me into Johnny’s world. Kudos to both men for taking the horrors of war, and turning in performances of a lifetime. Jessica Rosilyn was another stand out for me, whose powerful monologues touched my heart, and really brought a tear to my eye. Her mere presence was captivating enough for me. But really, everyone else I encountered was wonderful was well. Bravo all around.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the location of the show itself, Mountain View Mausoleum. It was truly humbling to be seeing a show about being trapped between life and death while also surrounded by those who had passed. This, while subtle, added much to the show. Even during the times I forgot where I was, wandering the halls with the characters, they would read off the names of those nearby, reminding us that the end was always nearby.
The Johnny Cycle: Part III – The Living is a two hour, emotionally powerful show. It’s impact will impress upon you for days, and leave you thinking about your own actions. It’s a wonderful piece of storytelling, and it is well worth your time to go see.
The show runs now until May 25. Do yourself a favor, and go see it.
For more information, and to get tickets, visit them online at http://speakeasysociety.com/