Curtain Call

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"I think that after losing his arms, he started looking at more serious issues," explains Brent Johnson. "God and life and where we are going and why are we here and what it's all about. That started to bleed into his work. History is full of people who were mentally ill and very creative, and maybe sometimes stability is at odds with creativity. I don't know that Don ever had the choice, but I think that if he had, he would have taken creativity over stability anytime."

Nowhere is Don's spiritual quest and creativity more apparent than in his play, Lucifer Tonite, a piece he described on his resumé as a "highly-acclaimed one-man show about God, Satan, good, evil, sex, drugs and rock 'n roll."

A series of monologues ruminating on the vexations of science, religion, time and other heavy topics, when it was first staged in 1996, Lucifer featured Don in the role of the Devil — although his version was a bathrobe-wearing, beer-slugging philosopher who patiently explains how evil is dependent on human beings, how it's not all his fault. The two-hour play never relents, never slows down to explain the weighty material, but rather charges at its own deliberate pace toward several brutally honest moments.

In one scene, Don strips shirtless and removes his prosthetic arm, faintly pleading, "Jesus, if you love me, leave me alone." In a video of the production, the audience sits completely transfixed, silent, agitated.

"Lucifer Tonite is without question the most important piece of avant-garde theater I have ever seen in Denver," Westword's theater critic wrote at the time. "The most truly experimental, iconoclastic and intelligent work by a contemporary performance artist.... Nothing stands between the viewer and the meat and meaning of the stream-of-consciousness monologue by the Devil himself. Becker is in your face for two hours, and his performance will shock viewers not used to cutting-edge excess."

Though Don penned and acted in several other plays — his first, Back on a Limb, which is highly autobiographical, Kurt Cobain Was Right and Subgenius PoliceLucifer remains his legacy and has been staged multiple times around town.

Actor Nils Swanson, who for years went by the stage name Nils Kiehn, is intimately familiar with Don's work, having played the title role in a 2000 production of Lucifer. "The way Don's characters thought was just out of this world," Swanson says. "To me, he was like Sam Shepard and David Mamet on acid. There were all these great characters that he so cared about, but it was like, 'Where did you come up with this?'"

Denise Johnson met Don at a yoga class nearly eighteen years ago. A week later, she saw the one-armed man again at a garden party hosted by their instructor.

He was acting strange.

"He started chewing up food and then putting it on his plate," she says. "Then he would spit it out and put it on my plate. At some point he got up and went into the bathroom and started running a bath, and then suddenly he streaked out of the bathroom naked. I was laughing because I thought it was some sort of comedy routine or something. I didn't recognize it then, but I learned later he was going through a psychotic episode. Later that night, he tried to stab his eyes out with a screwdriver."

Such an initial impression might be off-putting to some, but Denise was intrigued. "I was just fascinated by him, really," she says. "How he could harm himself like he did. How he could be so creative. I've always looked to the light, and he seemed to find his creativity in darker places. But I never worried about my safety or anything with Don."

The next time she met Don was in the lockdown ward of Denver General Hospital (now Denver Health), after he'd stopped taking his medication. It was the only time Johnson, who became friends with Don, can recall him doing so. There would be days when he'd forget to take the lithium, and he would call her when he was "feeling a little manic," as he would say, but Denise learned to recognize the warning signs: not bathing, not wearing socks, not shaving. During those times, she would try to help him out of the valleys he was in, to talk him off the ledge, so to speak. "It wasn't easy being Don, but I do think for the most part, he stayed on those meds," she says.

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Adam Cayton-Holland