Catastrophic Theatre prepares to ride ‘Speeding Motorcycle’ again

For a moment, Jason Nodler opens up about life and death, and the effect is, metaphorically speaking, like looking at the workings inside his skull. The playwright, director and co-founder of Houston’s Catastrophic Theatre is actually talking about his father’s head — which has been pocked by melanoma — and not his own, though his father’s ailments have put Nodler in a contemplative space.

“He said to me, ‘Please promise me you’ll wear a hat,’” Nodler says, his voice often veering as it does, close to a sneer, suspicious and angular in tone. “And I’m like, ‘No. I’m not going to do that.’”

Tamarie Cooper, Nodler’s professional counterpart for nearly three decades and co-founder and associate director of Catastrophic, lets loose a 30-year sigh.

“Just stop it,” she says.

“Life is long, man,” Nodler continues. “I know, it’s also short. But it’s long.”

He brings up a Dutch artist who, like Nodler, suffers from bipolar disorder: He sued his government because the warnings it placed upon packs of cigarettes didn’t guarantee his death in a timely manner.

“That’s our thing,” Cooper says. “Eternal pessimism and some optimism.”

Her expression is notable because Cooper is such a striking creature on stage, with a lifetime of expressions to convey all states of being. But even doing darker material, her energy often pries loose some feeling of positivity or hope. Seeing the corners of her eyes pull downward as her counterpart speaks is heartbreaking.

“But I’m not a pessimist,” Nodler counters. “It’s just enough already. … That’s all.”

Cooper sighs a second time, and this one isn’t a theatrical sigh either. The two are sitting a foot apart at Double Trouble, each sipping a Topo Chico. But the parallel visual is an illusion because they’re clearly leaning on each other — as they have for years.

Their latest work is “Speeding Motorcycle,” which opens this week, a reimagining of one of their most successful shows together. Its source material is the work of Johnston, an outsider songwriter and visual artist whose work has been informed by his own bipolar disorder. The show debuted in Houston 13 years ago, back when Catastrophic was known as Infernal Bridegroom.

It’s not a revival, per se, as both Nodler and Cooper state. If for no other reason, the material has changed, and the principals have changed. Some are older and wiser, others have died.

True to Johnston’s work, “Speeding Motorcycle” is about working through the worst that time has to offer. It always offers a bit of light at the end.

“There’s a heaven, and …” he sang, “there’s a star for you.”

Johnston’s hermetic life unsealed

Daniel Johnston’s world isn’t necessarily inviting to those seeking simple comfort in familiar sonic and visual stimuli. Johnston sings like a train about to jump the tracks. Popular music typically regards tempo as unwavering, like cruise control in a car. Johnston treats it as a frantic mix of bracing speed and jarring stops.

His art is distinctly his own. Johnston is a skilled visual artist capable of painting intriguing and layered work. But over the years, he’s also found the most rudimentary of his work generates plenty of interest: hastily drawn comic-book-type pieces with recurring iconography: heads with the top removed, skulls, eyeballs with bat wings, froglike monsters with multiple eyes atop tentaclelike protrusions, Captain America, ghosts and so on.

The real canvas isn’t any one of these drawings but rather the sum of them accompanied by his lyrics. They present Johnston as a multimedia artist revealing his thoughts, struggles and responses to the struggles. The visual art, like the songs, isn’t always logical in its narrative. But the mysteries are never so dense as to be prohibitive.

I recall fondly a work of his from around 2009. In it an expressionless woman declares, “Love makes me sad.”

Next to her is a green-skinned, horned female creature who replies, “It’s all you’ll ever need.” The green woman could be talking about love. But her forehead reads, “Sex.” So, well, it’s complicated.

To the right is a blue demonlike figure in profile, as though it is creeping away. All it says is, “Ssshh.”

The source of Johnston’s work is a hermetic world defined by his unusual life, one defined by love and hope, menace and endurance. He’s just always made it open to the public.

Working at Astroworld

Johnston’s backstory bears mention, though it’s so winding and twisted that it’s best to be swift in summarizing it. He grew up in West Virginia, where his love for the Beatles sent him into his parents’ basement to make rough recordings of his own songs, often drawing complaints from his mother, who can be heard on some of his early tapes. His father was one of the Flying Tigers in World War II, which likely played some role in Johnston’s clear delineation between good and evil, heroes and villains, that played out in his songs and art.

Johnston in the ’80s moved to Texas, where his story gets weird. He spent time in Houston and worked at Astroworld, doing narration for the River of No Return ride. He ran off with a circus for a while and worked the corn-dog stand. But mostly he churned out art — drawings and tapes — which he’d hand out in Austin.

He had a central narrative that ran through a lot of his work: an unrequited love in West Virginia, a woman named Laurie, who married an undertaker, thus breaking Johnston’s heart forever. He sang a lot about Joe, a boxer who didn’t really participate in traditional boxing matches. Instead he faced off with monsters seen and unseen, representative of Johnston’s struggles with love, conflict, communication and his bipolar disorder. A short MTV spot drew some attention, as did Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain wearing a shirt with the cover of Johnston’s “Hi, How Are You?” album: Jeremiah the google-eyed frog.

The attention in the ’90s didn’t do Johnston much good. He spent time drifting and receiving no treatment for his condition, resulting in some very low points and more notoriety than fame.

But after his brother, Dick Johnston, took over managing his career, Johnston stabilized. His art began to sell, rather than being given away in exchange for cigarettes, junk food, soft drinks and comic books. He was selected as a featured artist in the Whitney Biennial. Johnston in his 40s wasn’t a superstar. But he was living comfortably in Waller, enjoying some renown and compensation for his art.

“Speeding Motorcycle” found a vast and relatable story not in Johnston’s biography but in the world he’d created as a reaction to his life. Nodler and musical director Anthony Barilla began developing an idea in 2005: making a rock opera based on the sphere of mythology he’d created. The show became an iconic piece of underground theater in Houston.

Building a ‘Motorcycle’

Years ago Nodler left a Butthole Surfers concert in New York, still traipsing along a path cut by LSD, when he had an idea for a music-centric theater piece. His friend got off the subway, and Nodler was left on a platform trying to get back to Jersey City with a phrase pinging around inside his skull: “In the under … in the under … in the under.”

“And I thought, ‘Thunderloo,’” Nodler says, his dark eyes brightening a bit. “And I knew it was vital to remember it. So I wrote it in the dirt on the subway platform in hopes that doing that would help me remember it the next day.”

“In the Under Thunderloo” became the piece that launched Infernal Bridegroom Productions, the decidedly alternative Houston theater company, which began in 1993.

Nodler and Cooper at that point had already spent years intertwined as conspirators. They met at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

“Jason was our reluctant leader, I like to say,” Cooper says.

“Still am,” Nodler replies.

They worked as bartenders together. They worked on the Jerry Brown presidential campaign together. Nodler left Houston, and then he returned. He worked with actor Jim Parsons and musical director Barilla. They did Brecht, “In the Jungle of Cities,” which is hardly a theatrical softball. That said, it yielded the phrase “Infernal Bridegroom,” a call to arms for a group of theater true believers. Cooper and Nodler found themselves working together again with this red-eyed collective.

Infernal Bridegroom operated with a fearlessness, willing to draw from the city’s deep pool of musical resources and dedicating resources to produce plays by writers including Suzan-Lori Parks, who’d go on to great renown.

“Speeding Motorcycle” stood out. The piece was deeply attuned to Johnston’s world, visually and musically. Barilla had an ear for Johnston’s oft-stated affinity for the Beatles, which wasn’t always apparent to listeners. Johnston’s “Hey Joe” (inspired by the beat-down boxer) is clearly a riff on Paul McCartney’s “Hey Jude” (inspired by an ignored child).

Johnston’s version of McCartney’s plea to take a sad song and make it better: “Don’t make that sad song, any sadder than it already is.”

It wasn’t a message of bright-eyed encouragement. It was more about stopping a leak — even if for a moment.

“Speeding Motorcycle” riffed on many key Johnston’s motifs: heads with the tops removed, ghosts, eyeballs. There’s Joe the Boxer, who is among the purest characters in Johnston’s sphere — a good yet struggling soul. Nodler mentions that the character was based on a homeless man, a former boxer, whom Johnston would encounter growing up in West Virginia.

Cooper was supposed to sit out the original production. But Nodler asked her to choreograph one song before her wedding and honeymoon, and soon she was pulling full-time shifts, fully invested in Johnston’s world and the way he presents it.

“He doesn’t put his music through a lot of filters,” Cooper says.

Johnston still struggling

“Speeding Motorcycle” was among Infernal Bridegroom’s best-loved and best-attended productions. The show also played in Austin. It even drew the notice of the New York Times.

And it was part of a larger narrative in which Johnston finally enjoyed some renown as a quintessential outsider artist who at last got a foot in the door.

Johnston today is 58 and struggling. In addition to his mental illness, his health has been far from good for much of his life, with a list of ailments that includes diabetes. Two years ago he played a few shows on what was called a farewell tour. He’s being treated for Parkinson’s disease.

Nodler himself was unwell and didn’t plan to work on “Speeding Motorcycle” again. He’d taken a medical leave from Catastrophic — the new theater company that rose after Bridegroom’s 2007 demise — while he was being treated for Lyme disease.

Cooper planned to helm the production, but Nodler’s health improved sufficiently for him to return to co-direct. “We’ve done this before,” she says. “We have a shorthand with each other.”

For some viewers, the show will be an introduction to Johnston’s work. For others, there’s an added emotional weight in his songs and iconography that comes with another 13 years of living life.

The Joe character, the boxer, was played by three actors in the original production. Two of them — Kyle Sturdivant and Joe Folladori — return. But Cary Winscott, a key Bridegroom player, died of skin cancer in 2008. “Speeding Motorcycle” was one of the last shows he did.

“I thought doing this show ever again was inconceivable,” Cooper says. “It was too married to him.”

“And Kyle mentioned how great an advocate Cary was for the show,” Nodler says. “And how he’d kick our asses for saying anything like that.”

“So we’d find ourselves thinking, ‘I wish we could come up with something like ‘Speeding Motorcycle’ again,’” Cooper says.

They’ve added and cut some music. There are a few new twists that are sweet and best unmentioned, so as to not spoil the effect of a story about shared experience. But in short, Cooper had to dedicate resources to make a few more of the open-skulled Joe heads for cast members.

And though our culture likes to celebrate the past on anniversaries with multiples of five or 10, this show 13 years later feels like as a salve for turgid and tumultuous times. It encourages us, like Joe the boxer, to keep punching.

‘We will destroy you’

Nodler brings up an old Catastrophic motto. “We will destroy you.”

“It was never supposed to be a serious motto,” he says.

He recalls an old partner who used to do an impression of a malfunctioning robot that, despite its impending demise, repeats the phrase, “I will destroy you.”

“Eight months after a medical leave, I’m feeling a lot better,” he says. “And I’m not feeling like destroying people. We’ve been tossing around a new slogan, ‘Now providing disaster relief.’ We’re flipping it.”

The story they project is instead one about how, like Joe, we slug away. But we’d do well to have somebody like Johnston chiming in with encouragement — or a theater partner with whom to share 30 years of experience.

So we don’t make a sad song any sadder than it already is.