Houston Chronicle Review: Deeply moving ‘Speeding Motorcycle’ musical revs up emotions of Daniel Johnston’s songs

Joe Folladori’s performance of “Peek-a-boo” is among the crowning achievements of Houston theater in 2019. To say it lays bare the sorrow of a man struggling with mental illness is an understatement. It turns the singer, and us, inside out. Folladori sings and plays the piano with a posture that suggests he’s on the verge of collapse or outburst, yet both he and the song maintain this incredible sense of poetic discipline as they tell us, “Please hear my cry for help, and save me from myself.” The lyrics are unbearably candid while the melody is unbearably beautiful, even catchy. What a striking juxtaposition of mortality and lyricism.

This moment arrives early on in “Speeding Motorcycle,” at the Catastrophic Theatre through Aug. 4, a musical dedicated to presenting the works of Daniel Johnston. Of course, Johnston is perhaps the iconoclast of Austin’s alternative-music scene, a singer-songwriter who garnered a cult following in the 1980s and ’90s by handing out mixtapes of his songs. His “Hi How Are You” mural became one of the indelible images of Austin, its iconic frog doodle once emblazoned on a T-shirt famously worn by Kurt Cobain.

Anthony Barilla and Jason Nodler are the two Johnston fanatics responsible for bringing “Speeding Motorcycle” to life in 2006 with the theater company Infernal Bridegroom, which Nodler co-founded. Barilla returns as musical director, and Nodler returns as co-director (with Tamarie Cooper) in this remount.

As it currently stands, “Speeding Motorcycle” is ideal for newcomers, as it doesn’t assume any prior knowledge of the artist, instead presenting his work in an accessible, funny, absurdly colorful manner. But the Johnston diehard will also appreciate the purity of the music. There are virtually no additional words or scenes beyond the man’s songs, though they are arranged and staged in a way to tell the story of a boy who falls in love with a girl and gets his heart broken.

“Speeding Motorcycle” cleverly threads together the mythology within Johnston’s lyrics that feature Joe the Boxer, a man with an open head whose love leaves him for an undertaker. Yes, open head. Folladori wears a skin-colored prop that makes it look like the top of his head is cut off — think O-Ren Ishii in “Kill Bill” but less bloody. But what appears at first to be a cartoonish add-on no longer seems so during “Peek-a-boo.”

Joe the Boxer, whom we can see as a stand-in for Johnston, becomes a Frankenstein-looking tragic hero whose sorrows are laid out for our consumption. The open head becomes a metaphor for the intimate access we gain into a sick man’s mind. It’s a defect, an open wound — one that both puts the man in a dangerously vulnerable state and grants him the superpower of gorgeously raw truth.

But Johnston sings back at us. “Peek-a-boo” speaks directly to the audience who is enamored with the mythical “tragic genius.” “You can listen to these songs, have a good time and walk away,” Folladori sings in one of the final verses. “But for me it’s not that easy. I have to live these songs forever.”

Johnston, here, essentially “problematizes” any and all consumption of art made by people who perhaps need medicine, love, family and stability more than fame or blind adoration.

I was floored by “Peek-a-boo” because I, too, engage in hero worship of people like Johnston. I tell people that I feel deep empathy for the struggles of these kinds of geniuses, that I relate with them. But what do I know? I have no idea who these people are, I have never met them, and I only hold the false belief that, because they dared share their secrets with the world, that when I consume their secrets I have forged an intimate bond with them. As if one earns a relationship by plugging in a mixtape or watching a musical. As if we can ignore Western culture’s long, terrible history of fetishizing mental illness among artists.

But my subjective understanding of “Peek-a-boo” is now something that I own, an experience that belongs to me. No one can tell me my interpretation is right or wrong, that my enjoyment or discomfort with the song is invalid. When I heard that song, a relationship burst into existence that will never go away. This holds true for everyone else in the audience, though their song might be “Loving Feelings” (which Johnston composed specially for this project), or “Life in Vain,” or “You’re Gonna Make It Joe.”

Throughout his career, Johnston likely created thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of these special little connections across the globe. The Catastrophic Theatre’s production spreads the love, sadness and beauty he had to offer to more people. If Johnston’s songs are gifts to the world, then “Speeding Motorcycle” is Christmas for the weary.