Show: Danny Casolaro Died For You
Company: TimeLine Theatre Company
Venue: TimeLine Theatre
Die Roll: 18
Last night I saw “Danny Casolaro Died For You” at TimeLine, and it was hands-down the best show I’ve seen yet this season. Holy cats. Bravo, TimeLine!
“Danny Casolaro” is based on the real-life events that led up to the death of journalist Danny Casolaro in 1991. Casolaro, a freelance journalist working in the Fairfax, VA area, uncovered what he thought was a simple carriage of injustice against a non-profit software company by the Department of Justice, which snowballed into a many-tentacled “Octopus” (his phrase) that connected the Reagan White House with the Iran-Contra affair, federally-funded cocaine cartels, a criminal bank owned by La Casa Nostra, a private military contractor that manufactured weapons on a California Indian reservation, and bodies everywhere.
Yes, this sounds like a conspiracy theorist’s pipe-dream, but the beauty of this play is how Danny discovers each piece of the puzzle and its connection, and tries to figure out why and how they all connect. One of his main sources is a former Stanford whiz-kid, an associate of the software developer ruined by the DOJ, who puts Danny on the scent of the larger story.
I’m not going to go into detail here of all the connections and interconnections – the show does it extremely well. All of elements are laid out as Danny discovers them and in such a way that the audience easily follows along. Playwright Dominic Orlando, a cousin of Danny Casolaro, brilliantly uncomplicates the octopus’ arms in the conversations between Danny and his cousin-in-the-play, Tommy Vacarro, losing none of the detail while laying out the links to world-changing events so that to settle on the veracity of the allegations makes as much, if not more sense, as dismissing them for conspiracy fluff.
The truth is always in question, and that question haunts Danny as he swims deeper into the mire. What is the truth? Is it possible that the government would knowingly sell a piece of software (PROMIS) configured with a backdoor so that the US could spy on other countries using this software? Perhaps you caught the NSA spying activities revealed this summer? Is it possible that those weapons could then be used in payment to guerrilla and crime syndicates who further the interests of the US government? Uh, hi there, Sandanistas, how are you?
My point: These things have happened, keep happening, and Casolaro was one of the early journalists who stumbled onto these doings and tried to speak out about it. And it killed him.
Seeing these complicated political agendas unfold through the players that enacted them, versus on the bland page of a history textbook or declassified documents via FOIA, personalizes them. Three of the actors play one role apiece in the play; the other three mix it up with multiple roles. All are well-cast and extremely skilled.
Kyle Hartley is amazing as Danny Casolaro, bringing to life a man whose dogged pursuit of the story to unveil the truth ultimately killed him. Danny is incredibly sympathetic, even when he’s out of line. His passion to uncover the facts as the story grows, his willingness to test each theory and challenge his informants instead of taking their accounts at face value speak to his abilities as a journalist. It’s easy to hate Time Magazine assistant editor Jeff Beagle (one of Dennis William Grimes’ many well-defined roles), who dismisses Danny as a small-time, inexperienced dilettante simply because Danny doesn’t belong to the big-time club. What Beagle finally does to Danny after “coaching” him through his story made me want to stand up and take a punch at him. Good job, Mr. Grimes!
It’s more than just a political thriller, though. It’s also a story of family. Demetrios Troy plays Tommy Vacarro, Danny’s cousin and the narrative center of the play. Tommy sets the stage for us as two DOJ agents visit his home four years after Danny’s death, in order to convince Tommy to revise his initial statement that Danny’s death was in no way a suicide. The play itself is Tommy reviewing the past and showing us what happened – some things he was present for, some events Danny relayed to him. The cousins were hoping to break the story via a major news outlet and capitalize on it further as a movie. The chemistry between Hartley and Demetrios is perfect – I absolutely believe they’re cousins, and in many ways, brothers. They’re family, and they go to the mat for each other.
Philip Earl Johnson is outstanding in all of his roles, but his main baddie is Robert Nichols, who terrifies with his easy grace and calm smile. This is a man who is quite comfortable making decisions and owning them. He has no fear of anyone, and he like the challenge Danny presents. One gets the sense that Nichols is grooming Danny for something. They have a series of conversations, some remote, some in person; at all times, Nichols tells the truth (to an extent) as a kind of test of Danny, to see where the information will Danny next. He’s mesmerizing, while at the same time, every instinct in you will scream for Danny to run like a rabbit. He’s all predator.
Rounding out the excellent cast is Mark Richard as Michael Riconosciuto, the former Stanford prodigy who sets Danny on his path. Danny ultimately convinces him to testify against the DOJ in the software case, at which point Riconosciuto is arrested by the DEA on questionable charges of meth manufacture – exactly as Riconosciuto predicted. Their last exchange occurs during a prison visit, when Riconosciuto tips Danny onto the existence of the Mob bank story. Richard is amazing, channeling a nervous technogeek desperate for Danny to believe him. Is he telling the truth? He thinks so, and even his wilder stories pan out. In a way, he’s had as much power as Robert Nichols, but never rested easy with it. He has a conscience, for better or worse.
Last, but certainly not least is Jamie Vann, who flips ably between 6 roles and disappears so chameleon-like into each of them (as does Dennis William Grimes), that I thought there were extra actors onstage. These six actors together created a fully realized world with no fuss and nary a missed step.
TimeLine’s space is amazing, and the set is spread out into four playable areas: a full kitchen that gets much use – everything happens over food and drink; a kitchen table set that morphs into a prison, a posh restaurant, and a tanning bed; a living area that is at various times Danny’s, Tommy’s, Robert’s, or a hotel room; and a right vom that serves as an entry space and a changing room. The lobby area, to either side of the kitchen, is formed of slim rectangular pillars on which are posted Danny’s research, and which serve as entry points to corresponding characters at times. Lighting and sound were excellent; a subtle underscore worked brilliantly to highlight dramatic points in the story.
If you like political thrillers, if you like family drama, and if the a story that pulls you down the rabbit-hole trips your trigger, this is a show for you. Go see it!
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Get the story out before it kills you, Danny Casolaro.
RATING: d20- “One of the Best”