Capsule Stage Reviews: A Christmas Carol, The Nutcracker, Margo Veil: An Entertainment, Life Is Happy and Sad

The emotional power of Life Is Happy and Sad lies in its disarming sincerity. The play, arranged by Catastrophic Theatre Artistic Director Jason Nodler from work by musician/artist Daniel Johnston, tells the story of one man's desire to connect with friends and the larger world through art and the simplicity of taped letters. The sweet truthfulness of the central character — Daniel Johnston is played here by a very compelling Matthew Brownlie — does not keep Nodler's production from being highly experimental. Everything from Kevin Holden's charmed setting, made up of stitched-together bed sheets and a tiny musician's practice room, to the odd collage of scenes, created from Johnston's own words, spoken into a tape recorder as he tried to develop new songs, is unexpected and fresh. Brownlie carries most of the show on his new-to-acting shoulders. The two-hour production is almost all monologue. And a lot of it is tough stuff: Johnston rambling about his deep loneliness, his nervous breakdown, his family who doesn't understand and, most of all, his desire to make music that is honest. Brownlie pulls all this off, for the most part, though he shines brightest when the music starts. The powerful music is the best reason to see this show, and it's stunning to watch Brownlie change from a shy, lonely, bumbling guy trying to make songs on a practice piano into a super-sexy rock star in complete command of the stage with his band. The two sides of the character demonstrate with moving clarity that life is indeed happy and sad.