In 1991, freelance journalist Danny Casolaro was found dead in his hotel room in Martinsburg, West Virginia. The police ruled it a suicide; others weren't so sure. Casolaro was investigating a conspiracy that reached into the highest levels of the U.S. government. Superman Is Dead, written and directed by Dominic Orlando and recently presented by the No-Pants Theatre Company, chronicles Danny's story, drawing from newspaper articles and interviews with his family and friends.
This isn't The Laramie Project. Not only does Superman Is Dead lack the polish and emotional depth of that work, its ties to documentary theater are much more tenuous. Although the play uses the actual names of several key players in Casolaro's investigation, all the dialogue is imagined. Moreover, a lot of it seems derivative of bad espionage novels and films. The writer/director includes a few subtle and not-so-subtle acknowledgements of this fact. After the life of Danny's son is threatened, for example, one of the other characters tells him, "Some of these guys--they watch too many movies."
Several of the actors seem to revel in the cheesy dialogue. Peter Killy is hilariously over the top as Robert Nichols, a wealthy, freelance entrepreneur with a dangerous reputation, and in a secondary role as Vergil Helms, an ex-CIA agent turned informant for hire. Karin Bowersock is also a treat as Michael Riconosciuto, a nerdy computer genius who becomes Danny's primary source of information. None of these characters are written with much depth; in fact, nearly all of the roles in the play have a cartoonish quality that makes the production somewhat surreal.
The highlight of the show is a dance number that comes at the end of the first act, as Danny tangos with several of the nefarious characters he's been dealing with. The sequence is deliciously campy, marvelously choreographed and performed. If the entire production were played in this spirit, this could be a very funny, irreverent show. Still, it's difficult to determine to what degree the play is an intentional parody of the political thriller genre, and to what degree it is meant to be taken in earnest. Since Orlando is also Casolaro's cousin, I'm assuming he has a particular agenda in putting Danny's story out there on the stage. Yet the play's attempts at righteous indignation are its weakest moments.
The show opens with Danny (Michael Voyer) delivering a speech from beyond the grave, telling us how his dead body was found. He then launches into a litany of inconsistencies and unanswered questions surrounding the death. Finally, he states that it was either a suicide or that he "was brutally murdered by an international criminal cabal." The way Voyer plays the scene, it's obvious that we're supposed to believe the latter. Dramaturgically, any character speaking from beyond the pale should know the cause of his demise; but, since the playwright does not definitively know the answer, the sequence comes across as coy and more than a little false. As narrator of the stage action, Danny chronicles the events leading up to his death chapter by chapter, yet there is no final payoff; the audience never learns who killed Danny Casolaro.
There are plenty of suspects, ranging from the shady characters Danny meets to agents of the FBI, CIA, and any number of government agencies. Nor does the play completely discount the possibility that the death could have been a suicide: Danny is faced with mounting debts, is fixated on his first wife who scarred him for life, and his obsession with the conspiracy story makes him more and more paranoid. Furthermore, a flashback reveals that his sister Lisa (Jodie Bentley) killed herself via a drug overdose. Danny's career is going nowhere fast, and it's not unimaginable that a failure to solve this investigation could have led him to take his own life.
The final moments of the play attempt to explain the show's title. Around the time of Casolaro's death, DC Comics killed off its most beloved hero, Superman (he was later resurrected); an alien named Doomsday came out of nowhere and beat the man of steel to death. Perhaps the audience is meant to ponder the fact that the hero doesn't always win in the end; sometimes, he dies before finishing the fight. Brad Fraser's play Poor Superman used this same comic book event to weave together a tale of love and desire in an age of uncertainty, when even childhood icons can pass away. But, unlike Fraser's work, Superman Is Dead doesn't integrate the title's metaphor into the production. It seems tacked on in the worst possible way.
The play is also filled with so many characters and plot points that it's difficult to keep track of everything--even with Danny making notes on an on-stage chalkboard. And the lack of character development becomes a major drawback by the show's end; though some of the actors' portrayals are humorous, that's no substitute for complex characterizations. The most fleshed-out role is, of course, Danny. But Voyer's portrayal demonstrates little emotional vitality. He's at his best during his silent, brooding moments, but that's simply not enough to drive the action of the play.
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