“No single image defines Batman, because any single image is too small to contain the various layered and at times contradictory meanings we’ve instilled in him. Since his first appearance, we have projected onto the character our own fears, our preoccupations, our moral imperatives, and have seen in him what we wish to. It’s this limitless capacity for interpretation that sets him apart from his comparatively stolid fellows in spandex. It’s why so many different iterations of Batman have managed to escape the nerd enclave of comics to blithely coexist in the cultural consciousness of normals.”
—The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, Glen Weldon
Fort Worth — Maybe it doesn’t need to be said, but most people’s personal demons don’t speak to them in the guise of a maniacal, villainous clown, or a slinky redhead with a thing for plants, or a cold-blooded arch-villain with an inexplicable Austrian accent. But Jason O’Connell, the writer and performer of the very funny one-man show The Dork Knight, isn’t most people. He’s a self-professed Batman obsessive, a super fan with a profound emotional investment in the character. The Dork Knight tracks the highs and lows of the Batman movie franchise, from the darkly thrilling 1989 Batman starring Michael Keaton, to the agreed-upon nadir of Joel Schumacher’s much reviled Batman and Robin, and through the Christopher Nolan trilogy that rebooted the universe, and parallels these ups and downs with O’Connell’s own trials and tribulations in his career and his personal life. As he struggled with an absent father, low self-esteem, his desire for an equal partner in his relationships, and the rocky path of trying to make it as an actor, Batman was a constant source of comfort, a role model of someone who transformed himself into a hero through sheer will (and, let’s be honest, a hell of a lot of money). Brimming with humor and raw emotion, The Dork Knight makes a compelling argument that characters from pop culture can have almost as strong an effect on the people we become as our families, and that maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.
O’Connell kicks off the show with the first—and possibly best—of the many impressions he’s spent decades mastering: a disturbingly accurate Michael Keaton, with a slight grimace and aggressively reptilian flicks of tongue as he licks his lips. This impression is followed by numerous others—Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Danny DeVito’s The Penguin, Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tiresomely (and often incomprehensibly) punny Mr. Freeze, Christian Bale’s laryngitic Batman, and an iconic turn as the late Heath Ledger’s Joker. But these impressions aren’t a gimmick, or a party trick. Funny though they undeniably are, O’Connell uses these personas in the show to do some real soul-searching, to interrogate himself about his choices, his relationships, his goals. Nicholson’s Joker advises him not to care about what others think—put on that clown makeup and do you. DeVito’s Penguin can speak to O’Connell’s body image issues—if someone like DeVito, hardly a classically handsome leading man, can make it as an actor, why not O’Connell? From Schwarzenegger, O’Connell takes the lesson that success means effort—if a bodybuilder with no particular acting talent who can barely speak English can make it in acting, surely O’Connell has a shot if he’s willing to work for it. These icons not only shaped O’Connell’s perceptions of himself, but his acting choices; among others, he states that the physicality of his Richard III owes more than a passing debt to DeVito’s Penguin. It’s in this section of the show that the audience gets a glimpse of O’Connell’s Shakespearean chops, and he doesn’t disappoint.
The show is at its rawest as O’Connell describes his experience seeing Nolan’s final Batman film (at least to date), The Dark Knight Rises. Replete with issues relevant to O’Connell—searching for a partner, concerns about legacy, hope, moving on—the happy ending Batman/Bruce Wayne manages to carve out for himself offers inspiration. Bruce made himself Batman, and he made himself a happy ending. Why not O’Connell, or any of us? If we love Batman for his humanity (contrasted with someone like Superman, the “flying Jesus alien” as O’Connell dubs him), then how can we begrudge him his desire for a full life, as some outraged fans did after the movie’s premiere? The movie offers a certain catharsis, a hopeful end for a character full of his own struggles. Why not O’Connell? The show concludes with a sense that, if he hasn’t found it yet, at least his own happy ending may be on the horizon, and that, strange as it may seem, his lifelong relationship with Batman may well have helped him find it. Not bad for a man dressed like a flying rodent.
This isn’t Amphibian Stage Production’s first collaboration with O’Connell. He, along with Brenda Withers, co-adapted last season’s much-acclaimed update of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano, which featured his life partner Kate Hamill as Roxanne and is scheduled to be produced this summer at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. The Dork Knight was originally produced at Abingdon Theatre Company, an off-Broadway theatre, and the Artistic Director of Abingdon, Tony Speciale, directed that production as well as this one, and the familiarity of artist and director shows onstage. The lighting design, originally conceived by designed Zach Blane for the run at Abingdon, and presumably reproduced at Amphibian, helps sell the transition from character to character with subtle transitions.
Even the non-nerds (and really, these days hasn’t nerdery essentially gone mainstream?) will find something to enjoy in The Dork Knight. The show runs at Amphibian through Dec. 16, so don’t sleep on this one, folks. Be sure to tune in soon: same Amphibi-times, same Amphibi-venue.