When Catastrophic Theatre brings back Daniel Johnston’s rock opera Speeding Motorcycle this week, it’ll be something of a milestone.
The company premiered the musical back in 2006, when Catastrophic was still known as Infernal Bridegroom Productions. Co-founder Tamarie Cooper remembers the show “had a different effect on audiences than pretty much anything we’d done up to that point.”
And she’s right; it was a bona fide hit, garnering praise across the country, with the New York Times praising the score that “ricochets from toe-tapping, feel-good songs to discordant, despairing dirges, a reflection of Mr. Johnston's bipolar disorder.”
Johnston, who lives in Waller and is now retired from music, has garnered an ever-growing fan base over the nearly four decades he’s been writing and recording. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he poured his feelings into his music; many of his songs have been covered by artists such as Tom Waits and Beck. Kurt Cobain was a fan.
Speeding Motorcycle tells the story of Joe the Boxer, a character who makes repeated appearances across hundreds of Johnston’s songs. Joe’s in love with a woman named Laurie, who is engaged to be married to an undertaker. After the marriage, Joe decides the only way he can be with her forever is to die, knowing she will be the one to prepare his body.
“There’s something very innocent and so honest in Daniel’s songs and lyrics that the piece is ultimately very uplifting,” says Cooper, who will co-direct the play. “There are moments of celebration and moments of identity I think are universal for everyone, where I think anyone can relate to what it’s like to love someone who doesn’t love you.”
Catastrophic co-founder Jason Nodler explained that although the company has reworked part of the original script, fans can expect the same wonderful cacophony of angels and Casper the Friendly Ghost and Captain America.
“I was already a fan [of Daniel Johnston],” says Jason Nodler, who directed the show’s premiere. “He writes in a way that is so raw—and by raw, I really mean heartfelt.”
Spreading the gospel of Johnston's music to a new audience was part of the decision to bring back the show. But so is the sheer love Cooper and Nodler have for the piece and its creator. Despite its heavy-sounding plot lines and themes, the show, they insist, has great moments of warmth and humor.
“I think they’ll laugh a lot,” says Nodler, “and I think they’ll be surprised at what they’re laughing at.”
June 28–Aug. 4. Tickets pay-what-you-can (suggester $40). MATCH, 3400 Main St. More info and tickets at catastrophictheatre.com.