Houston Press Review: Struggle As Art In Speeding Motorcycle at Catastrophic

Let’s play metaphor.

If the theater scene in Houston is a family, then Catastrophic Theatre is like the creatively kooky aunt who takes you under her wing and exposes you to things your family members wouldn’t dare. It’s not that what the others offer isn’t interesting, provoking and even brilliant at times. It’s just that your aunt has a mainline into is the different, the odd, the fantastical, the wonderfully weird…the intellectually and often humorously smart “other.”

In a never-ending loop, we eagerly await what new experiences the aunt will bring/show us and are equally grateful when she leaves and we get back to our regularly scheduled programming. Sometimes though, what she brings is so precious, we really do wish we could hold onto it a little longer.

Case in point, just look at how Catastrophic brings us a show about mental illness. Not wrapped up predictably in an issue play. Not in a heart-stringy, easily-digestible, confessional one man/woman monologue. And not in a ripped from the headlines narrative either. None of these options befit the company’s kooky aunt status.

Instead what we get is Catastrophic’s moving revival of its 2006 original show, Speeding Motorcycle, a bitter-sweet rock opera comprised entirely of songs by Daniel Johnston, a musician whose songs reflect in simple and almost childlike fashion, his life-arresting bi-polar disorder.

If Johnson sounds like an unlikely source for production material, you obviously haven’t earned your indie rock knowledge cred. Johnston, a Texas native, has had his music covered by the likes of Beck and Pearl Jam and none other than the alt-god himself, Kurt Cobain, called Johnston the “greatest living songwriter.”

But don’t take these dudes’ word for it. Instead, come and look at how Catastrophic co-founder, Jason Nodler, has taken these songs, ranging from head bopping, to full-on rock outs to heartbreaking laments, and curated them for the stage. How he’s woven together in narrative Johnston’s ups and downs, obsessions, hopes, and plummets, and complemented the music in the best way possible. By giving us even more insight into its emotional core through the power of theater.

Speeding Motorcycle follows a semi-autobiographical narrative laid out loosely in Johnston’s own music and art brut illustrations. A boy named Joe Boxer (Johnston’s musical alter-ego) loves a girl named Laurie, but the girl marries an undertaker and works with him in his funeral home. The only way the boy will ever get her to touch him again is to die and have her prepare him for burial.

But by far more crucial than the actual unrequited love story is the reality that Joe Boxer (played in the musical by three separate actors) is not of sound mind. And that’s where this musical delivers its gut punch.
Wearing flat-top headdresses that look like chopped off flesh-colored Bart Simpson heads with black lining inside (a nod to Johnston’s own cartoon depictions), Joe Folladori, Greg Cote and Kyle Sturdivant all play Joe in the show, often overlapping in scenes.

If the three actors were meant to represent a different aspect or mental state of Joe, it’s not easily apparent. But what does differentiate the trio is the manner in which they depict the character and how together, they give us a cascading full view.

Cote is the first to really pull us in. A double threat in this show with his strong acoustic guitar playing and his ready for prime-time musical voice, he immediately charms us with “Life in Vain”, a sweetly melodic song about not wanting to give up on hope despite how hopeless things feel. Cote is the most effortless of the trio, the most subtlety vulnerable, and as such, we warm to him and his struggle with easy concern.

But no one rips our hearts out like Folladori in his pin-drop number, “Peek-a-boo”. Better to let the lyrics, which Folladori sings in a strained, naïve, whisper, while accompanying himself on the piano, speak for themselves on this one:

I’m just saying how I feel.
Maybe you could try to understand.
I’m a man who needs you.
When I’m down, really down
Nothin’ matters. Nothin’ does.
I close my eyes to go to sleep,
But I can’t sleep. I can’t sleep.
You can listen to these songs,
Have a good time and walk away.
But for me it’s not that easy.
I have to live these songs forever.
Please hear my cry for help, and save me from myself.

A naturalistic singer, Sturdivant for the most part, gets the most up-tempo of the numbers, and his back-from-the-dead, continuing-to-obsess-from-a-coffin, “Funeral Girl” is a showstopping funky dance-in-your-seat kind of performance.

Nodler, who also co-directs the show with Tamarie Cooper (who does a bang-up job choreographing the production as well) pays homage to much of the imagery of Johnston’s metaphoric illustrations in the show. In full costumed glory (courtesy of Macy Lyne) we get singing life-affirming frogs, Angels, skeletons and Captain America fighting the Devil. We also get Casper, a ghost that no one sees and no one pays any heed to. An invisible being among the healthy living.

But if you think there’s a lot happening on stage with the material and the three actors and the illustrations come to life, this is only half of what makes this show so dynamic. Add to this, a chorus of 11 and an on-stage six-person live band that includes everything from a horn section to electric guitar and drums.

This is a thrumming, sound-filled, feel it in your belly, resonant show. A show that feels epic in scope despite the small MATCH space. Kudos to Anthony Barilla (Musical Direction & Arrangements), Shawn St. John (Sound Design) and the angel-voiced Alli Villines (chorus member and Vocal Direction and Arrangements) for taking Johnston’s music and giving it majestic theatrical wings.

Okay, we’re at the end of the review now. We’ve tapped for kudos as many folks as this word count will allow. Sung the praises of the production on several deserved levels. And now we’re waiting for the inevitable question…but isn’t a show cobbled together from the inner thinkings of a love-starved, mentally unwell, often utterly depressed man, well, depressing?

If you have to ask, this show isn’t for you. Johnston, like so many in his predicament, doesn’t easily fall into binary entertainment equations. There is always up and down. A constant cycle with no exit.

But if you’re willing to go on the journey, your kooky aunt show will show you something beautiful in this struggle. You’ll see the illness and the hope, the moments of blackness and those moments when the clouds clear and life seems possibly beautiful again. You’ll see the extraordinary effort Catastrophic has taken to honor Johnston’s art onstage, and in a lovely surprise, even after you exit the theater.

You’ll want to stick around, sometimes we aren’t in any rush to go back to the safety of our everyday theatrical family.