Jason O’Connell of “The Dork Knight.” Photograph by William Marsh.
"This is going to suck,” thought actor and comedian Jason O’Connell before his first reading of “The Dork Knight.” “No one but a nerd like me would be interested in this.” A year later, his one-man show is making its production debut at the Philipstown Depot Theater in Garrison as part of the “In Process” performance series presented by the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. The show chronicles O’Connell’s obsession with Batman, which started with Tim Burton’s cheeky 1989 adaptation starring Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker. In addition to his two favorite actors in the leading roles, the film came out just as O’Connell decided to embark on an acting career. “It was the perfect storm of things I had been obsessed with,” he says.
Though O’Connell was interested in comics as a child, the show is more focused on “how intensely I identified with these films as an adult.” “The thing I embraced about Batman is that he is a human being,” says O’Connell. “He’s not born with magical powers, nothing is poured on him. He just set out on this mission and he became something more than himself.” He adds, “I can’t even drag myself to the gym more than a couple of times a week.”
The narrative arc of the show is structured by O’Connell’s personal reactions to Batman films. The format consists of characters breaking the fourth wall of the films to talk with the Batman-obsessed O’Connell at different stages of his life. A dialogue written from the point of view of Heath Ledger’s Joker picking on O’Connell in deeply personal ways inspired the idea. “That became the heart of the whole thing,” he says. “And it wasn’t funny. It was serious.”
In his fifth year as a member of the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Company, O’Connell has a background in serious drama. He’s played King Claudius in “Hamlet,” and this season, he plays the lovelorn Berowne in “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” The show also calls on his background as a comedian, his first passion that started in high school with sketch comedy and impersonation stand-up. The result is a show that is both humorous and dark. “It can and probably should be both if it’s going to be honest,” he says. This binary does not only stem from O’Connell’s acting background, but also from the dichotomous Batman mythology. “Batman villains are as potent as Batman himself,” O’Connell says. “The characters capture the imagination because they are so ambiguous. It’s more complicated than here’s the good guy, here’s the bad guy.”
The recent Colorado tragedy has shrouded the Batman story in an added layer of darkness. "A theater is a sacred space," says O'Connell. "Any place where people are coming together to watch art, have some sort of cathartic experience. To prey on people at that moment is truly evil." As for the show, O'Connell knows he will address it. "I'm gauging right now how explicit or how subtle to make the reference."
After his first few readings of “The Dork Knight,” O’Connell was surprised by how many people identified with the concept. “People would come up to me and say, ‘That’s how I was with Star Wars,’ or Hook,” he says. One friend admitted to a private obsession with the 1994 version of The Shadow starring Alec Baldwin. “I realized it’s universal. We all have something that we’re into that everyone else shakes their head at.”
Though obsessed, O’Connell is not delusional. “I don’t dream about running around being Batman,” he says. “I’m not crazy. I’m an actor. That’s as crazy as it gets.”
Performances of “The Dork Knight,” directed by Terry O’Brien, will take place at the Philipstown Depot Theater in Garrison on August 2, 16, and 30 at 7:30pm and August 18 and 24 at 8pm. 845-424-3900; Philipstowndepottheatre.org