This article on The Johnny Cycle was Co-Authored by Jackie Kotowicz
Below is a review of The Speakeasy Society’s The Johnny Cycle Part III: The Living. While we explore the themes and discuss one meaningful scene below, the article only has minor spoilers and will not spoil your experience.
“Are you afraid to die?”
A voice echoes through the labyrinthian marble halls of the mausoleum. The words belong to someone I don’t know; someone I shouldn’t hate—but I have my orders. My training flashes in my head: if I come across an enemy from behind: snap his neck. If I have a combat knife, stab and twist. Out of habit, my hands thrust an imaginary blade forward—and twist. A solider in olive grab and boots approaches and tells us to be ready for the attack. The enemy’s words fill my head again. Yes. I am afraid to die.
The Speakeasy Society’s The Johnny Cycle: The Living is a bleak tale highlighting the futility of war and the regret and loss that follows in its wake. Directors Julianne Just and Genevieve Gearhart create a world and seal you within its dead, marble walls. Despite these heavy tones, this experience is filled with masterful acting, an awe-inspiring set, and moments of true connection that illuminate the darkness and offer a glimmer of hope. Further, the beauty of this experience is that there are multiple stories, opinions, and timelines to explore. Johnny was the embodiment of Dalton Trumbo’s voice, the writer of Johnny Got His Gun. And thus, this story is as much his as it is Johnny’s.
As with Trumbo’s fiction, the execution of this play echoes the style of authors like Vonnegut and Beckett in the most heartfelt way. These authors and their big, open-ended yet nihilistic concepts find kinship within Johnny. Foremost, how this play handles time, the absence of or overwhelming of, leaves groups astonished and entirely encapsulated in this story for two solid hours. In the grand sense of time, human life can be trivialized to a piece of common garbage: a bottle cap. These caps are seen to be hoarded as the most precious commodity, flipped into a hat to pass the time, or vomited from the mouth as a horrific display of consumption.
In The Johnny Cycle: The Living, all time exists as a constant Vonnegutian theme. Time stretches groups across decades and locations—because the cost of war is eternal. Every eerie, expansive mausoleum hallway contains multiple realities, from every war, modern and ancient, to a single character’s viewpoint. No spot of this massive site-specific stage contains the same story twice: today, tomorrow, or ever. Every character, existing roughly between the 1920s and 1960s, is laid before you in a completely non-linear manner. Regardless of the current narrative thread the participants are currently pulling on, they are ever present. It’s executed in a delightfully robust, chaotic way.
Further, in a true Beckett fashion, this finale of The Johnny Cycle unites groups who are simultaneously all Johnny, treated in unison as a rookie soldier, and pushes them back and forth between the absurdist ideas of both being, not being, waiting eternally, and having nothing to wait for. One scene may have Johnny deep within the trenches of the Great War thinking of his wife; while the next, Trumbo himself is on trial for the nearly amoral way he’s maimed and abused his character, who is also Johnny, who isn’t real. Participants have a completely personal decision to make: does the wrecking of Johnny, the person, the character, the allegory, matter? Fantastically, if someone decides that the cost Johnny pays in any format doesn’t matter, it’s completely fine, your stance isn’t punished, just like if someone believes the cost is too high, you aren’t rewarded. The wheel of war, patriotism, love and loss, will continue to spin regardless of any morality.
Depending on a combination of the choices you make, each participant will experience different characters and narrative branches in your exploration of this material. Your group of thirty will be quickly broken down into smaller groups of three to six–offering both an intimate experience for a few participants, but also creates an air of mystery. Who’s the woman with the crimson hair sitting by her lonesome? Why are people in party hats celebrating with champagne in the office down the hall? What was that scream I just heard emanating from the darkness? These questions urge you to come back and explore a side of Johnny and Trumbo to learn the full story.
While the emotional impact of this work was heavy, it was the intimate scenes that were devastating. Pulling me into a dark alcove of marble, Kareen, played by the brilliant Colleen Pulawski, introduced me to a world of what could have been. She painted me a picture of all the things that I want for my life; all the things Johnny could have had with her: chubby little babies born in Colorado; our families convening to celebrate the holidays and I get to cut the turkey, which is moist, not dry; camping trips with the whole family, including that Golden Retriever I’ve always wanted; and even a crib that I build by hand for our fourth grandchild. Her story is beautiful; it’s everything I’ve always wanted—but it’s also not real. As I look into her big blue eyes, I see that this happy story is just a shell of what could have been.
“Was it worth it?”
Her words cut deep. I gave up everything to go to war. My choice affected not just my future, but hers. My words can’t make it up for it, but maybe I have something that can help. I fumble around in my pockets—and finally feel its cold metal in my hand. I hand her a little bottle cap, a trivialized symbol of my life—the only thing I have left to give. While it doesn’t give her back our future, in that moment, it’s enough. She closes her hand her around mine and I pull her close. To me, she’ll always be nineteen; she’ll always be wearing that ethereal white dress; and she’ll always be beautiful.
The Speakeasy Society created a work that transcends time to provide a relevant commentary on the war-machine and the consequences left on those who haven’t boarded the train. With an enormous cast and each character having wildly complex opinions regarding war, American youth, politics, life, and love, The Johnny Cycle: Part 3: The Living requires only one thing of its participants: emotional agility. These feelings are the ones that will haunt our minds and remind us of the worth of life. This experience does not require the previous two to understand its meaning—all time is all time. This show exists on its own just as powerfully, just as pertinent as it does with the two previous installments. This show is one that needs to be experienced. For fans of theater, fans of intelligent commentaries, or for fans of connecting with another human being—The Johnny Cycle is for you.
All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.