Speakeasy Society’s “Johnny the Living”: An Immersive Journey Through Our History and Memories. A review of “Johnny the Living”
“These aren’t my memories…they’re yours, Johnny.”
The meaning of those words echo throughout “Johnny: The Living”. Johnny: The Living is the third and final act in the “Johnny Cycle” put on by the Speakeasy Society. This trilogy has been put on over the last 3 years and is now coming to a close with this show taking place at the Mountain View Mausoleum now through May 27th.
Russell: Johnny: The Living is an immersive show I have been looking forward to all year. I saw the previous two entries of this series and found them to be both exciting and emotionally moving on many different levels. However, I admit to being taken by surprise by the bold choices made by the Speakeasy Society in this third entry of their trilogy.
Mike: Unfortunately for me, I only saw part two of the Johnny Cycle (Johnny the Shell) and didn’t get to see part one, but let me say this right up front…you do not need to see the previous shows for this show to make sense. This stands on its own…and boy, does it! Because I saw what they did in part two, I was expecting a similar set up and show, but within 5 minutes of the show starting, I quickly realized what was happening and had a huge smile on my face due to what they pulled off and surprised me with.
This is an interactive and immersive show. You become a part of the story. There could be times that you’ll be asked questions and given things to say. There could be times when you’re taken away from your group to have a conversation with a certain character. One of the biggest strengths of the Speakeasy Society is creating a world where EVERYONE gets to interact and have their own tiny sliver of the spotlight.
Russell: The show begins with a chaotically paced sequence that casts the audience in a very specific role. This clever introduction sets up a key element of the show… nothing is straightforward. History mixes with fiction. Real people encounter the memories of fictional characters while participating in real conversations. Sound confusing? Perhaps, it is, but the overall effect is wondrous. We the audience, are asked to participate in the shifting landscape. We are here to bear witness to wrongs that have been done and tragedies that echo through time. Some are real, some are symbolic. Buckle up.
Mike: That opening was such a clever way to start the show. It was so unexpected. I had no idea where the story was going at that point and I love that. From that opening, I was an observer, then I was a witness, then I was Johnny. The audience plays just as many roles as the cast, but you always know which role you’re playing due to the cast addressing you. When you’re Johnny, they will let you know. When you’re an observer, they will let you know. I always knew and understood “who” I was.
Russell: Accountability seems to be a hot topic of discussion these days in our media. Words? What do they mean? How much power do they hold? How should each of us be held accountable for the words we put out into the world? Frighteningly, this show causes us to consider who might hold us accountable for the things we say.
Those are big ideas. However, politics is not the focus of this show. Well, maybe emotional politics. Speakeasy Society has cleverly chosen to mix the reality of the Dalton Trumbo’s personal life with glimpses into the work that inspired this entire trilogy, Johnny Got His Gun, the well-known antiwar novel originally published in 1939.
For much of the show, it is made clear we, the audience, are Johnny. We are the ones remembering. Those glimpses into the past provide a deeply emotional sense of loss when you realize you’re walking through the remnants of a man’s life. We are rapidly led from scene to scene to encounter short hushed conversations about power and responsibility, loyalty and integrity. Family members confront us with things we should have done, things we will never get to do… and the pain left from both of those realizations.
For Johnny: The Living, the addition of a stronger presence of Trumbo himself and his dealings with McCarthy era politics and anti-Communist campaigns adds a deeply disturbing edge to the show. We watch a man being persecuted for his words and beliefs as he tries to justify to us that fighting for a cause – being a warrior of words – is something worth doing. But, why mix this reality with scenes that represent the character of Johnny from the novel? That mix is actually the true beauty of this show, in my opinion. Who holds each of us accountable in our lives? Some people wished to hold Trumbo accountable because they felt his actions were treasonous. As his timeline crashes into characters from Johnny’s memories, they echo the theme of accountability
Mike: Adding Dalton Trumbo to the mix made this show for me. It is such a clever addition. Yes, at times, you ARE Johnny, but Johnny is also a character written by Trumbo. At certain times throughout the show, Trumbo is able to speak to you, Johnny, the character he wrote about. It brings a “Never Ending Story” type of vibe to this show which works magically. He’s speaking to the person he created as if he’s real and you get to hear some very deeply moving words coming from him. Regrets, sorrows, and apologies are spoken by Trumbo to you. Things could have been different/written differently and seeing the emotional conflict Trumbo is going through because of that definitely adds an emotional layer for everyone involved.
Russell: In contrast, Mike, it seems to me that Johnny is holding himself accountable by replaying his memories over and over. On the battlefield, Johnny walked away from a wounded soldier and left him to die alone. He revisits that moment multiple times, even though that soldier (or should I say the memory of that soldier?) assures him that it was a reasonable thing to do. He attempts to keep Kareen, his girlfriend, forever youthful and vibrant in his thoughts. But is this defending her? Does this protect her? Only in his mind. Several times during the show one phrase is repeated, “How many times do we have to go through this, Johnny?” Every time I heard those words, I felt more trapped.
Mike: Johnny is trapped inside his own mind and the way this gets portrayed is chilling. There are times throughout the show where you understand what Johnny is going through and even though you know it’s just a show, it does have an effect on you.
Russell: How many times is Johnny going to relive his own past in an effort to protect it? At times it seems pointless – a desperate act of self-preservation from a man who cannot communicate and is trapped in the maimed shell of the body he once knew.
Mike: This show makes you think about being in the same situation as the injured Johnny. It makes you struggle with wanting to talk even though no one can here you. It makes you want to see your loved ones even though you have no sight. It makes you want to hear what people are saying even though your hearing is gone. If you’re in that situation, then all you have are your thoughts and memories. Time stands still. Everything stays the same. Nothing changes. It’s horrifying to think about.
Russell: At some point, all humans ask themselves the same question, “Why are we here?” For Johnny, dealing with horrific injuries and not able to communicate with anyone, perhaps it is the only relevant question. His suffering won’t end because he is being kept alive by others. His only choice is to relive his past.
The Speakeasy Society does a very smart thing by putting us in the role of Johnny. In our daily lives, where do we beat ourselves up the most? Where do we hold onto the past too tightly? If Johnny lets go of the past, it is a certain kind death. Not physical, but definitely a death. By mixing the reality of Trumbo’s life with his fictional creation, some fascinating territory gets explored. Words have consequences. Words can condemn or words can free. If we take on the role of Johnny, Trumbo’s creation, then for him to challenge or accept or forsake us becomes all the more personal.
Mike: Even as an outsider, as just a spectator of Trumbo’s life, you see the consequences. You see him standing up for what he believes in, and the consequences of that. You see him speak, with such fondness, to a character he’s created, and you see the consequences. You see what his family and best friend had to endure, which are consequences of knowing him. It does become personal, not only for Trumbo, but for us, the patrons. There are many heartfelt words spoken to you and there are many emotional scenes and triggers which you will see and experience. Once you combine these things, this becomes more than a play. It becomes real.
There are two characters that often get overlooked that I want to mention, the location and the score. These are things that shape the story and are living and breathing just as much as the actors and actresses. You are literally surrounded by death in this show. The past lives that are eternally resting beside you while you walk down the halls may go unnoticed, but subconsciously set the tone for the night. Once you realize and accept that, the show gets upped a notch. On top of that, the score for this production is astounding. Even though it’s been there all along, you don’t actually realize it’s there due to its subtlety. Then a change of a scene or a major story point will happen and the score reflects that perfectly. It’s never overwhelming or overtaking, it’s just…perfect.
Russell: Some quick comments about the logistics of the show. Speakeasy Society has created a wildly ambitious immersive production with multiple tracks for patrons to be led through. Repeatedly I witnessed scenes split the audience members into smaller and smaller divisions, each group being led into difference scenes, revealing different material. People were led away through doorways, down hallways to encounter strangers and to witness mysterious sequences known only to them. Moments later they would rejoin a larger group with a shocked look on their face leaving others to wonder what information they had learned in the private encounter.
Mike: I let myself go with this. On my track, I followed Trumbo’s life for the most of it. It became such a personal journey for both of us. So much in fact, that I found myself screaming at the top of my lungs at times and on the verge of tears when I was asked if I thought that my life mattered and I answered that it didn’t. Realizing that in the grand scheme of things…of all the years of life in the world…that in my opinion, my life didn’t matter, definitely knocked my emotional state down a few pegs. Being there, in that moment and being surrounded by death, brought me to another place mentally. So much in fact that when Trumbo was saying goodbye to me, as Johnny, I couldn’t do anything else but just give him a huge hug. It all just hit me at that moment, and it hit me hard.
Russell: This is an emotionally charged, politically fascinating, intricately woven thrill ride. The odd mix of history, fiction and philosophy unfolds in scenes of intense mystery and melancholy. Sound a little bit heavy? Maybe, it is. But rest assured it is a concoction designed to thrill. All you have to do is give yourself over to it.
The memories created from this show aren’t Johnny’s…they’re now ours.
For more information on the Speakeasy Society, check out their website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter
To purchase tickets for “Johnny: The Living”, you can find those on Brown Paper Tickets
To listen to an AMAZING and INSPIRING interview with the Speakeasy Society, check out Episode 47 of the My Haunt Life Podcast