The Show New Paltz Deserves

4 stars

When Jason O’Connell appears on the Parker Theatre stage, an ominous score fades out. He stares straight into the crowd, as if there were a mirror, speaking in Michael Keaton’s jittery tone confessing he is, in fact, Batman. He turns back to tell his mother to give him just a little more time to rehearse with the bathroom mirror; he’ll be done in a minute.

It’s refreshing to see geekery in its organic form: that completely genuine love for something without a trace of irony. When O’Connell performs his one man show “The Dork Knight,” he serves self-deprecating, witty and surprisingly heartfelt moments for a work derived from a comic book.

O’Connell’s show builds a narrative off his impressions of different characters from Batman canon including older favorites — Keaton’s Batman, Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Jim Carrey’s Riddler, Danny DeVito’s Penguin — and new classics like Christian Bale’s Batman, Heath Ledger’s Joker and Tom Hardy’s Bane.

In some parts of the show, he transforms in posture and voice fluidly between four or five different characters holding boisterous conversations with himself as his Batman characters deliver harsh truths about his professional and love lives. He later mentions that the quirks from his Batman arsenal have wormed their way into his other characters in his work as an actor: Keaton’s brooding Batman hides in the layers of his Hamlet, Carrey’s Riddler is under his Mercutio, DeVito’s monstrous Penguin stance is mimicked in his Richard III.

The impressions vary in likeness, but somehow not in efficacy, to those they pay homage. O’Connell knows his strengths and weaknesses from every angle. Even the newer impressions that aren’t as well-rehearsed manage to remain rounded and accessible. Even though I happen to think Bane sounds a bit like Grover speaking into the wrong side of a oscillating fan, O’Connell plays on the humor of the villain’s less-than-vicious voice. When the lines were muddled or difficult to understand, it’s done on purpose.

A stand-out part of the show was when O’Connell took on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze, using the governator’s thick Austrian accent and seemingly-haphazard approach to acting to encourage himself not to let fear force him to give up on his own acting dreams. I also just couldn’t resist the ice-themed wordplay. Call me a glutton for punishment.

The strongest moments in the show were the rawest: the ones that hung over silence between the punchlines that commanded laughter.  Toward the end, O’Connell turns stage right, staring down to his dream girl — the much sought after companion in his narrative. She’s smart, loves to draw the way he did and loves Batman just as much as he does. The heart-busting moment is when he leans forward addressing her — his future daughter — telling her that it’s okay, girls can dress as Batman too.

O’Connell is candid in discussing the women in his life — giving them each a character pseudonym and honestly and maturely recalling his own misdeeds in the relationships with his personal Poison Ivy, Vicki Vale and Harley Quinn. This honesty is so powerful considering his self-confessed tendency to place women on pedestals and the general tendency for geek culture to play the victim or commodify women.

That’s what sets this show apart from other, more narcissistic one-man deals: O’Connell doesn’t always see himself as the superhero of his story, or even the hero Gotham deserves.