In that tenuous space where heartbreaking loneliness meets relentless hope lives this beautiful, strange Daniel Johnston rock opera
Reviewed by Hannah Kenah, Fri., March 7, 2008
Zachary Scott Theatre Center Kleberg Stage, through March 23
Running time: 1 hr, 45 min
"It's not the story of what happened; it's the story of how it felt." – Jason Nodler, director
Excepting the very lucky few, everyone has experienced unrequited love. Daniel Johnston's work, as seen and heard through the lens of Speeding Motorcycle, is an exploration of that particular brand of melancholy. The story is mostly autobiographical. A young man loves a young woman, but she loves an undertaker. So it was in Johnston's life, and so it is for Joe the Boxer, the show's protagonist. And while most of us have experienced unrequited love, few of us are able to articulate it. Perhaps it takes an unbalanced mind to capture those unbalanced emotions. Even audience members who are unfamiliar with Daniel Johnston will quickly gather that this show is told from the point of view of a lost mind. A beautiful lost mind in which pain fuels creativity. Melancholy shines in this peculiar show. Summed up into one image, Speeding Motorcycle is a hero in a straitjacket, brimming with hope and with tears.
Unfortunately, the show is as disjointed as its main character. Act I is intriguing, moving, and filled with curious imagery. Act II is far less interesting. Joe was a tortured soul on Act I's earth, but he is a jaded B-list comedian in Act II's heaven. The show tries to slap a happy face on something that was better left to its darkness. Joe the Boxer is played by three actors (even more Joes appear at times when the chorus assumes his likeness). But this split-personality device is not used to any great effect. One of the three Joes becomes the main Joe, played by Kyle Sturdivant, who exudes fragile hope and is captivating. The second Joe plays like a sidekick, and the third Joe is barely present. The lopsided development of this trio feels like failed execution rather than choice. The ensemble that backs up Joe, playing medical staff in the psych ward or funeral attendees, is strong and wonderfully eclectic. They provide the show's most powerful voices and fun characters, with Adam Smith's Captain America (yes, Captain America) a notable delight. Adriene Mishler plays Laurie, the object of Joe's unrequited love. The role is fairly lean – her character floats as an elusive figment at the edges of Joe's mind – but Mishler's performance is full of detail, down to the repeated gesture of clutching one arm across her body as she leans into her undertaker husband, a gesture that is affectionate but guarded, as if she suffers silently from the knowledge that she has broken a man's heart.
Jason Nodler provides a program insert of director's notes that are extensive and beautifully written. They do exactly what such a tool ought to do: increase your potential enjoyment of the show. The notes introduce you to the world of Daniel Johnston, giving insight into the nature of his work and providing reference points for navigating it, and they tell the story of how the show came to be. Most importantly, they prepare you for the style of the show's narrative. "The events are not chronological – they exist at all times, as memories of lost love always seem to do." Nodler enables you to be moved by the dreamlike expression of Joe's story.
It is a show that requires audience members to open their minds. When there are six Joes onstage singing a love song called "Mind Contorted," you really have to go there with them – go to that strange place in the heart where one can believe in lost causes. The imagery is beautiful. A man in a straitjacket places a phone call with his nose. Johnston's "Hi, How Are You?" frog is brought to life. A straitjacketed Joe watches an unbound Joe having a picnic with Laurie. A man with a shovel steals Laurie away from the picnic. Joe is left to pick up the pieces, attempting to carry two guitars and a blanket and a picnic basket and a chord book all with just two human hands. The show is unusual. Several people left at intermission. But if you can stand to dwell in that tenuous margin of life where heartbreaking loneliness meets relentless hope, then this show is worth watching.