He's back! Jason Nodler, the founding artistic director of Infernal Bridegroom Productions, has returned to Houston and the Axiom to direct Speeding Motorcycle, a surprisingly sweet rock opera, which Nodler adapted from songs by Daniel Johnston, with grant monies from the Rockefeller Foundation. For the uninitiated, Johnston is a cult musician-artist who's been written up everywhere from Texas Monthly to The New York Times. His ink and felt-tip drawings featuring Captain America, among other familiar figures, sell for upwards of $5,000, and his quirky rock and roll tunes have influenced the likes of Kurt Cobain. Not bad for a dude who lives in Waller, Texas, where he continues to write and draw despite the fact that he suffers from severe bipolar disorder.
As one might expect, Johnston's musical world is inflected with mental illness and the extreme loneliness severe depression can bring. He writes often of unrequited love, deep despair and death. So it is a strange and altogether wonderful surprise that the story Nodler has constructed out of Johnston's powerful music is nothing if not uplifting.
The weirdly moving tale focuses on a man who falls in love with an undertaker. After she marries another undertaker, our hero -- who goes by the unlikely name of Joe the Boxer and is played by three different actors (Kyle Sturdivant, Cary Winscott and Joe Folladori) -- doesn't know what to do. When he hits his head in a motorcycle accident, he realizes that the best way to attract his lover's attention might be to die. After all, she is an undertaker.
As maudlin as this might sound (and Johnston's songs are often so woeful they can move the listener to tears), the utterly unpredictable story turns in some fascinating directions. Angels appear. So do preachers. We watch an undertaker care for a dead body. And somehow all this gets happier and happier. One might read this musical as mimicking the emotional manic-depressive roller coaster that bipolars ride. But it is sweeter to think of this show as the least ironic production Nodler has ever created.
Unquestionably, there's a disarming innocence in this music, a willingness to reveal vulnerabilities that Nodler and his cast capture with a straightforward, almost childlike delivery (Winscott has an especially tender and honest voice). And Anthony Barilla's musical direction is rich with charmingly eccentric choices, starting with a fabulous opening featuring a stage full of performers strumming acoustic guitars.
As is common in Nodler's work, the technical choices are visually arresting and develop the imaginative leaps in the story beautifully. Marcia Yingling's costumes and Kirk Markley's set evoke a cartoonish world full of fluffy clouds and goofy characters (including Captain America). Estrangement, loss and a bizarre desire for unadulterated happiness all come across in this oddly flat landscape. It's a world where death can be a nice place, and unrequited love can cut down to the spine and fill you with satisfying pain all at once.
The last 20 minutes of the show offer a short concert of Johnston's music. You can drink beer and bop along to the rangy tunes. And once the music is over and you wander off into the balmy night, you will likely feel the sort of infectious charge one might get during a fast midnight ride on a Harley.
A World Run Amok
The most interesting part of Theater Collide's production of Caryl Churchill's The Skriker was its venue. Billed as a "site-specific" production, this bit of experimental theater happened in the ramshackle rooms of a house under renovation in the Sixth Ward. As the story unfolded, the audience followed the actors from the front yard through the century-old rooms of the house as they got acquainted with Churchill's dark musings on our world, which she envisions as sliding toward destruction. In this play, the natural world has gone utterly awry with global warming: "The sun's going to kill me. Spring will return and nothing will grow," says one character in a bleak speech. Likewise, the supernatural world of fairies and strange visions has run amok. The Skriker (who was played with bewitching eyes by Troy Scheid) is a bad fairy out to pull humans into her underworld. First a smart girl named Josie (Amelia Rico) falls under her spell; then Josie's sweet friend Lilly (Brittny Bush) is victimized. The entire play functions much like an extended prose poem, with Churchill playing with the language throughout as the Skriker casts her terrible spells. And while it's hard to know exactly what the old house had to do with the plot, director Andrew G. Hager made good use of odd lighting and the creepy windows to make Churchill's message disturbing and artful. -- Lee Williams
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