Life is Happy & Sad: A Roller Coaster of Artistic Anguish from The Catastrophic Theater
Houstonist would like to preface this article with a simple fact: you need to go see this play. Anybody who takes the time to invest a bit of themselves digging into the arts scene in Houston knows that there is a veritable treasure trove of secret gems waiting to be found – often right in front of our faces. Life Is Happy & Sad is definitely one of those secret gems.
We arrived at Diverseworks for this Catastrophic Theater production with a cursory knowledge of Daniel Johnston – his famous manic depression, his sizeable catalog of songs, the myriad of artists who have claimed him to be a wonderful songwriter – and having seen an exhibition of his drawings at Station Museum a couple years ago. We've only got one collection of his recordings – The Late Great Daniel Johnston Discovered Covered, a double-disc collection featuring a smattering of Daniel's songs on one disc and those same songs covered by various artists [including Death Cab For Cutie, Sparklehorse, M Ward, and Tom Waits] on the accompanying disc. Houstonist even made sure to catch him performing a few songs at SXSW this year. Perhaps we entered with an above average knowledge of Daniel's story, but Houstonist had never really cracked the lock to the mystique that has made Mr. Johnston an inspiration and influence on so many of the artists we love.
Jason Nodler's Life Is Happy & Sad was the proverbial locksmith of whom we were in need. After seeing the performance of Nodler's second Johnston-related piece, we feel as if we truly understand the beauty of Daniel's art. He is the quintessential tortured artist, but Johnston is also perhaps the truest artist we have ever known. Nodler's play is adapted from a cassette tape previously heard only by David Thornberry [Daniel's friend for whom he recorded it in college] and his wife – a tape that Thornberry handed to Jason during the run of Speeding Motorcycle, a Johnston-inspired rock opera that Nodler wrote a few years ago.
The first act of Life Is Happy & Sad is a heart-rending reenactment of Daniel recording the cassette – a letter of sorts – performed excellently by Matt Brownlie [of Bring Back The Guns fame]. As we sat in the intimate theater, peering in on the set – a rehearsal room at UT populated by a piano, Daniel, his notebook and a tape recorder – we were perplexed at how well Brownlie sells his character. As the story spills forth, with Brownlie swinging from manic excitement to wrenching loneliness, we were hanging on every word. The pacing and passion that he has thrown into playing Johnston makes him incredibly believable – be it the obsessive manner with which he checks the recorder's microphone, the frantic excitement as he describes a Meat Joy album, the reflective stops and pauses of the recording or the desperation as he begs Thornberry for mail. It is a roller coaster of artistic anguish offering intimate insight into Johnston's creative drive and inner loneliness. As the lights dim on Happy & Sad playing Heart & Soul at the piano, we sit back and exhale, unable to think of a more fitting close to the first act.
Act two is a fantasy concert which runs the gamut of emotion from ecstasy to despair, drifting amid songs and themes that are covered in the previous act. Make no mistake, this part of the piece is stunning as well, but it is more of a relaxing comedown compared to what we had just witnessed. It will still tug at your heartstrings, and Nodler has charted its path with excellence – much of it is Daniel performing songs as Happy & Sad make spot appearances. Joe Mathlete enters as Bill, who stumbles across Daniel writing in the rehearsal space, and plays backing guitar for a song that closes with Daniel reading-slash-singing an excerpt from How To Win Friends And Influence People. At one point Happy shows up with a rucksack and provides Daniel with extra tape recorders, and we see Daniel executing his own lo-fi multi-tracking. Three-fourths of local group Roky Moon & Bolt arrive and play an onslaught of a rock song behind Daniel before the act recedes back yet again.
The Bolt boys show back up to accompany him in the practice space and play Story of an Artist, a tremendously appropriate pick by Nodler and one of our absolutely favorite Johnston songs. At the close of the song Brownlie hits stop, removes the tape from the recorder, and tosses it out into the audience before sitting down to play a final number. Houstonist found ourselves exhaling deeply again, heart beating fast in our chest, satisfied and exhilarated and convinced that we had stumbled across greatness upon this small parcel of the Houston artistic landscape.