Happy and Sad serves up a slice of life

 Speeding Motorcycle viewed the world of Daniel Johnston through a kaleidoscope.

Life Is Happy and Sad views Johnston’s persona and preoccupations through a microscope.

Life, Catastrophic Theatre’s new play-with-music, is Jason Nodler’s follow-up to Motorcycle, his hit 2006 rock opera. Both are based on the life and music of songwriter/artist Johnston, who began his rise to cult fame in Austin in the 1980s. But while Speeding Motorcycle was a freewheeling fantasia with a crowded stage, Life is a pensive, tightly focused slice of Johnston’s life. Matt Brownlie holds the stage alone most of the duration with his nakedly honest portrayal of a troubled young man desperate to forge connections and find an outlet for his creative impulses.

As director and adapter, Nodler has based Life on a taped letter Johnston recorded in a practice room at the University of Texas and sent to his best friend, David Thornberry, in West Virginia. Act 1 is that “letter,” in several sessions: a plea to an absent friend, forlornly made to a cassette recorder. (It’s the early ’80s, remember.)

Johnston noodles at the piano, struggles with song ideas, or through covers of ’70s pop hits as rendered “hardly recognizable” by the band he’s been playing with. But mostly, having recently moved to Austin and made “no real friends yet,” he expresses his loneliness and insecurities, his need for his buddy’s friendship and his even stronger determination to express himself through his music.

Act 2 unfolds as a concert of songs (and a few vignettes) reflecting on themes of the Act 1 monologue. For some, we’re back in that practice room, while others occur as fantasy sequences with a three-man rock band backing Johnston. Nodler has selected the numbers to reflect the happy/sad dichotomy of the title. The songs, which have a feeling of improvisation, are either ecstatic or crestfallen.

Apart from snatches of a few pre-existing tunes, Nodler has taken all the material from Johnston’s work. The title comes from Johnston’s drawing of two strange cylinder-headed figures strolling hand in hand, one wearing an ecstatic grin, one with an agonized grimace. Reflecting the extremes of Johnston’s manic-depressive condition, they appear in the show as speechless costumed characters.

The Act 1 monologue drifts at times, even as reshaped by Nodler. Perhaps that’s inevitable, given material drawn from a taped message to a buddy. Yet, persuasively enacted by Brownlie, it benefits from bursts of quirky character and pathos. Compelling moments occur, as Johnston likens himself to Pinocchio, yearning to feel like a real person. Or when he describes his emotional state: “a spinning top heading for the edge of the table.” 

Brownlie, the former frontman for Bring Back the Guns and making his acting debut, proves ideal as the young Johnston. The neediness and sensitivity, bouts of wild enthusiasm, panics of self-doubt — all spring naturally from his portrayal. It’s a case of being, rather than acting the role.

 Act 2, though it also feels random at times, is livelier and more varied. It allows Brownlie to find full voice in such plaints as I’m a Loner and the one flat-out, high-energy concert sequence in which Johnston fantasizes himself a rock superstar. Brownlie’s potent voice and confident posturing fully inhabiting that dream role. Roky Moon & BOLT, the three-man band, add to the propulsive charge.

 Nodler’s simple staging underscores the spontaneity, as Johnston ruffles his hair with his hands, digs through his duffel bag for a lost cassette, paces avidly, jams his hands in his back pockets, slumps back at the piano.

 Kevin Holden’s set convincingly creates the stark little room, flanked by curtained areas to reveal Act 2’s fantasy scenes. Prop and costume whiz Jodi Bobrovsky brings the Happy and Sad figures of Johnston’s drawing to three-dimensional life.

 Life Is Happy and Sad no doubt will have greatest meaning for those arriving with some knowledge or appreciation of its subject. Yet even the uninitiated will find it an interesting and often poignant introduction.