Curious Theatre Branch

at Prop Theatre

Last Friday some of my coworkers were taking bets on exactly which day we would attack Iraq. There are more U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf than in any other troop buildup since the height of Vietnam. And ambiguity and confusion run rampant in our minds, since most young Americans don’t have much idea what it means to be at war.

In Looking Through Two Johnnies, Beau O’Reilly and Jenny Magnus have taken on the enormous task of examining the complexities of war, both its reasons and its ramifications. Like Bertolt Brecht, they use broad, absurd characters to bring to life the preposterous reality that is life during wartime. Like Brecht, they use music and poetry and direct confrontation to remove the audience from the fiction a little and allow them to think about what’s being said. As Brecht often did, they use a sustained metaphor (in this case, a deadly game) for society. But unlike Brecht, who used these devices to make his point clear, Magnus and O’Reilly end up making a complex issue even more murky.

The show’s ambiguity perfectly reflects our society’s view on the possibly impending war and the confusion of a generation whose only experience (if any) with war is Vietnam. But as theater, the hodgepodge of themes and ideas presented is just too scattered and random to say much of anything, although its cryptic quality is certainly intriguing. The slyness of the performers gives the distinct impression that there is an overriding statement being made. But though each vignette has its own point to make–war is mainly the product of greedy businessmen, or life in wartime is just an intensified version of life in peacetime–the pieces don’t fit together.

Magnus and O’Reilly’s war has many opposing factions, and the characters are as bizarre as they are diverse. There are two voracious businessmen, Hup and Schtupp, who may have instigated the war and are certainly keeping it going. One speaks only in guttural noises or speed-of-light mathematical computations, while the other is an exaggeration of Monty Python’s upper-class twit. Both spend their free time schtupping each other and anything else that has an orifice, as well as eating everything they can lay their hands on.

Then there’s a being from another plane of existence, Mr. Tombey, whose mission is to find the person who is stealing the souls from all the dead bodies, souls he claims are rightfully his. There’s a female assassin who spouts poetry, an artist who’s furious that she doesn’t have enough light to paint the battle scenes, and an ex-percussionist from the Vienna symphony orchestra; Joan of Arc even makes an appearance. Each character has a place in one of the story lines, but the stories rarely intersect.

The unifying characters are the Other Guy–a rugged mercenary who works all sides of the war, serving as a go-between for the other characters and as a sort of narrator–and the title characters. The two Johnnies are members of opposing armies, opposite in temperament. One Johnny is a sweet, cowardly poet, whose only wish is to survive and to smell better. The other Johnny has the mind of a mass murderer, clever and seductive and addicted to danger. Every night the darker Johnny sneaks over to the enemy’s front line and taunts the other with secret information and possible war scenarios, each involving a fight to the death between the two Johnnies. It is a macabre courting ritual, a microcosm of the larger war.

Magnus and O’Reilly have infused Looking Through Two Johnnies with wonderful verbal imagery and some powerful insights into the way people deal with war on a personal level. (One of the more powerful of these comes from the most whacked-out character, a drug-crazed genius: “Choosing ease within an atmosphere of awful, I take another shot.”) They also have a delightfully perverse sense of humor (including an ongoing bastardization of the antiwar classic “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”), which makes a horrifying subject easy to watch. And the songs, mostly written by Magnus, give the play an epic dimension and provide much of the bite.

Director Jill Daly uses the strengths of an extraordinarily diverse cast to full advantage. Their differences keep the cast from coming off as a unit, but they have fun with each other, and everyone shows some strong work. Jenny Magnus and her brother Bryn are intriguing in their opposition as the two Johnnies. Beau O’Reilly’s easy command of the stage makes him the perfect Other Guy. Jonathan Lavan and Dave Bompland are utterly outrageous as Hup and Schtupp, reveling in a decadence and absurdity that would make Jesse Helms cringe. And Ned Folkerth brings honesty and sweetness to Arthur Drum, the Viennese musician; you like him even after he rapes a woman (though the play does not condone rape–from Drum’s point of view, it was a dreamy, romantic interlude, a delusion we allow him because he and his victim spoke different languages). Daly herself plays Joan of Arc with exuberant self-righteousness.

But this mixing of styles and talents only makes the already disjointed text less comprehensible and leaves the audience wondering which story lines are the important ones. Many elements simply disappear without a trace, others are left without a conclusion, and there are too many ideas to assimilate and ponder. Parts of the play drag on too long, others go by in a flash. And the combat scene seems downright dangerous for audience members.

Still, Looking Through Two Johnnies is an arresting theater experience. Musicians David Meyers, Max Callahan, and Ned Folkerth contribute an exciting aural element, while dance, video, and Daly’s use of space splendidly fill the eye. Kevin Hackett’s lights convey moods appropriate to the play’s many different elements. But the most stunning visual element is John Coyne’s set, with its funky, shifting scenery that constantly reveals previously hidden areas and makes it impossible to predict what will happen next.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tamara Staples.