There’s a lot of dramatic irony at work in The Shell, the second installment of the Speakeasy Society’s sprawling, immersive-theater adaptation of Dalton Trumbo’s classic, 1939 anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun. Its effects register from the moment that the audience files into the vestibule of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Glendale and are “inducted” into the evening by a WWI “recruitment officer,” who archly comments, “That’s good. Because we need every body.”
That’s because writer-adaptors Julianne Just (who also co-directs) and Chris Porter (who has also scored the evening) can safely assume that even theatergoers who missed last year’s The Quick and the Dead, which launched Speakeasy’s ambitious three-play The Johnny Cycle, will already be familiar with the outline of Trumbo’s story — namely, its first-person account of a WWI doughboy left grotesquely maimed by an artillery barrage and little more than a conscious mind in a limbless body. That heavy sense of knowing fatalism pervades everything that follows.
To an even greater degree than last year’s show, The Shell drives home the “first-person-ness” of that horror by conscripting the audience as stand-ins for the hapless Johnny (who is mostly played by a riveting Michael Bates). After a final farewell hug from Johnny’s mother (Natalie Fryman) and father (John B. McCormick), each spectator is separated from whomever he or she came with and is taken by one of the nurse-ushers (Olivia Sandoval and Christie Harms) to an isolated seat in one of the church’s pews.
The ornate Gothic-revival interior of St. Mark’s provides a wryly liturgical setting for The Shell's darkly poetic reflection on what it means to be human amid the profoundly inhumane carnage of industrial warfare. Directors Just and Genevieve Gearhart deftly underscore that question through stark contrasts of tightly scripted and choreographed ensemble “production numbers” with unsettlingly intimate and partially ad libbed interactions between audience members and actors playing fellow conscripts.
In Act 1, this includes sitting in a pew and being approached by Bates (in costumer Felicia Ross’ period-perfect battle dress), who apprehensively shares a moving letter of farewell to his wife written on the eve of “going over the top” and to certain death. That encounter sets the stage for the hair-raising bombast of a general (McCormick) preaching to the troops from the sanctuary pulpit as he casually inventories the appalling tallies of the war’s epic slaughters (the Somme alone cost both sides over a million casualties).
But most of the evening is spent on foot. The audience is quickly divided into six-person platoons and marched through the church’s meeting rooms and grounds for an increasingly hallucinatory and viscerally powerful descent through the memories of Johnny’s splintered psyche. The drama is at its most harrowing during scenes between Bates and a zealous drill sergeant (Zan Headley), in which Bates has his limbs amputated; it’s at its most mystical and moving in St. Mark’s cloistered courtyard during an ensemble dance to the orchestral swells of Porter’s eerily percussive score.
As Johnny struggles to find his voice and reconnect with the world, however, the script begins to introduce strands from the biography of the novelist himself, the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (played with aplomb by Matthew Bamberg-Johnson). Unlike The Quick and the Dead, which more closely followed the contours of the book, The Shelter virtually co-stars Trumbo, whose defiance of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s and his subsequent Hollywood blacklisting enter the narrative at the midway point. By the time of the show’s dance finale, staged in the church auditorium — this time an ensemble-audience two-step set to the somber WWI flag-waver “After the War is Over” — Trumbo has all but displaced Johnny as the subject of the play.
But if the appearance of Trumbo sets up what feels more like a cliffhanger than a satisfying resolution, for a show that is ultimately about the enigmatic intersection of conscience and consciousness, it is nevertheless an effective choice. Andrew M. Lia's strong lighting, Martin Gimenez’s impressive sound design and a uniformly persuasive ensemble all contribute compelling translucence and luster. Perhaps more importantly for this kind of grimly philosophical material, they manage to successfully whet the appetite for more.
The Speakeasy Society at St Mark's Episcopal Church, 1020 N Brand Blvd., Glendale; through Aug. 13. johnnytheshell.bpt.me.