The Actors Will Bully You at This Anti-War Play — and It'll Be Great

Jeremy Kinser as a doomed doughboy in The Quick and the DeadEXPAND
Jeremy Kinser as a doomed doughboy in The Quick and the Dead
Photo by Adam Frank

With The Quick and the Dead, the first installment of what is being billed as The Johnny Cycle, directors Julianne Just and Genevieve Gearhart and composer-writer Chris Porter have created the Speakeasy Society’s most ambitious and artistically satisfying foray yet into intimate, experimental immersive theater.

Their first coup in staging Dalton Trumbo’s classic, 1939 anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun, about a horrifically maimed conscriptee, is the subversive irony implicit in the canny site-specificity of the venue — Pasadena’s venerable American Legion Post 13. It's been transformed by designers E.M. Gimenez (sound), Anna Cecelia Martin (lights) and Erin Walley (scenic) into the varied environments of the production.

Actors and audience members sit in on a battle-planning conference.EXPAND
Actors and audience members sit in on a battle-planning conference.
Photo by Adam Frank

The second is the atomized, controlled anarchy of the staging. For a hallucinatory memory play about literal disembodiment, charting Johnny’s physical and psychic fragmentation by dividing the protagonist among three actors (Matthew Bamberg-Johnson, James Michael Cowan and Michael Pignatelli) and even the audience itself proves a uniquely inspired use of immersive mise-en-scène.

Coup three is the authoritarian nature of the experience. Ten-member platoons of audience members get sometimes brusquely ordered through the hourlong show in 20-minute relays. The symbolic bullying ingeniously foregrounds the ideological coercion of all narratives, be they of the jingoist or the pacifist kind.

Sallie Merkel as a sweetheart left behindEXPAND
Sallie Merkel as a sweetheart left behind
Photo by Adam Frank

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It is this latter achievement — abetted by a uniformly superb ensemble — that ultimately rehabilitates Trumbo’s archaic sentimentalism for an age where combat has become even more grotesquely dehumanized by the commercial imperatives of high-tech cyborg warfare.

GO! Speakeasy Society at American Legion Post 13, 131 Marengo Ave., Pasadena; through June 6. Speakeasysociety.com.


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