Daniel Johnston’s Speeding Motorcycle – Axiom (Houston, TX)
Houston’s Infernal Bridegroom Productions is one of the most daring theater companies in the country, as the recent eleven-night sellout run of Daniel Johnston’s Speeding Motorcycle attested. Crowds ranging from hippies to yuppies, avid theatergoers to hardcore clubhoppers had hearts wrung and spirits lifted by a work that featured an enthusiastic, multi-talented cast, brilliant costuming, hilarious sets, riveting renditions of Johnston’s songs, and deliciously wacky choreography.
Adapted almost entirely from the words of Johnston’s songs by playwright and Infernal Bridegroom founder Jason Nodler, the playfully tumultuous script revolves around the tragi-comic Joe Boxer, brought to life in split-personality fashion by a group of actors who illustrate the bipolar elements in Johnston’s work. The Joes — Joe Folladori, Kyle Sturdivant, and Cary Winscott — interact frantically in multi-headed dialogue at turns. These encounters are interrupted by nurses, doctors and well-meaning angels who only add to the chaos. Even Captain America and Casper the Friendly Ghost make cameo appearances.
From the opening scene, which ponders where a mind goes when someone loses it, we’re never quite sure whether a scene takes place in the psychiatric ward of a hospital or the psychiatric ward inside Boxer’s head. The play becomes a cascade of Peter Max-ian sensory attacks as the Boxer characters, dressed in hospital gowns or straitjackets, collide in an incongruous juxtaposition of perceptions and conceptions with medical staffers in neon scrubs so bright they border on hallucinatory. True to Johnston’s recorded work, occasionally beautiful moments and belly laughs are followed by a Twilight Zone chill.
Nodler’s direction strikes a delicate balance between the grandiose gesturing of opera and the subtleties of comic nuance. In harnessing Johnston’s material to action, Nodler has created within the play a visceral sensation of the spiral of mental disorder that moves from the stage to the audience, capturing the bipolar consciousness better than any psychoanalysis could. The by-product is that touch of humanity we all need, and hopefully get, from art.
Music director Anthony Barilla proved himself fully capable of realizing Nodler’s sonic vision. In one of the most memorable scenes, virtually the entire 22-member cast is onstage in a huge production number of Johnston’s “Go”. Angels free Boxer as a dozen actors wildly strum acoustic guitars while Barilla and a band support from behind the curtain.
The unqualified success of Nodler’s adaptation not only adds another element to the ever-growing legend of the enigmatic Johnston (who recently appeared at the Proletariat in Houston with Sparklehorse under the moniker Danny & the Nightmares), it also adds another triumph to Nodler’s rapidly growing reputation as a playwright and a director. Given the critical and popular success of Nodler’s neon Johnston spectacle, an off-Broadway run seems the next logical step.