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In Acting Shakespeare

Shakespeare to McKellen to DeVita: A Life

By James DeVita
The Pearl Theatre Company, New York, N.Y.
Saturday, January 19, 2013, D-113&114 (center stalls)
Directed by John Langs

[One weekend in New York City, three Shakespeare-themed one-man shows. They have only one common thread: They feature a single talented actor in an engaging play. In fact, the primary commonality of the three shows is how different they are, each representing completely different performance styles and each offering a totally different perspective on Shakespeare's plays: an actor's, a minor character's, and a modern counterpart to the titular character's. The latter two are, respectively I, Malvolio and Hamlet, Prince of Grief. Here's the actor's.]

Before Ian McKellen, Jaws served as James DeVita's driving influence. The Long Island, N.Y., native snuck into the cinema 27 times to see the movie when he was young, and after high school he worked three years as first mate on a fishing boat. Then, one night in 1983, DeVita saw McKellen perform his one-man show Acting Shakespeare. To say it changed DeVita's life is a trivial understatement, especially as we now have his own one-man-show, In Acting Shakespeare, in which actor and playwright DeVita takes us on the journey from his fascination with Jaws and fishing boats to his appreciation of McKellen and theater while exploring the life journey William Shakespeare might have taken.

DeVita stands on a chair, walking stick in hand like a sword, his jacket draped over the back of the chair, a crate to the side with a briefcase on top,
James DeVita in his one-man playIn Acting Shakespeare replicates Ian McKellen's story of delivering Henry V's "Once more unto the breach" speech on the dean's desk to gain admission to the University of Cambridger. DeVita had a more difficult time gaining admission to college theater programs. Photo by Jacob J. Goldberg, The Pearl Theatre Company.

DeVita is a core company member and literary manager at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin, where In Acting Shakespeare was originally produced. If it sounds like he ripped off the title from McKellen’s piece, he did. DeVita originally wanted to replicate the famous British actor’s show and got permission from McKellen to do so. But the more he worked on Acting Shakespeare, the more he realized it was too personal to the man McKellen and not just merely an actor’s show. Over time, DeVita’s own version took shape, using McKellen’s original as both the centerpiece to his narrative and a plotline to trace, and at a couple of points in his show DeVita directly references the original (including re-enacting McKellen’s wonderful story about using Henry V’s “Once more unto the breach” speech to get into Cambridge University).

While DeVita’s star power may not have the glow of Sir Ian McKellen's, his story is no less luminous, for he represents the solid—nay, stellar—talent that abides in the provincial theaters of America. For DeVita is a talented actor, and this one-man show puts that on display with his range of dialects, his physicality, and, especially, his sublime expertise with Shakespeare’s verse.

Notably, DeVita does not ever compare himself to McKellen, even though his play's plotline derives from his desire to achieve the kind of transcendent moment he felt when he first saw McKellen’s Acting Shakespeare on a college class trip to New York. Instead, DeVita compares himself to Shakespeare—not as a genius, but as an ordinary Bill or Jim Shmoe pursuing his dreams. DeVita sees his own biography of growing up in a Long Island, N.Y., middle class family as a shadow of Shakespeare's biography, the theater man who grew up the son of a glover and wool merchant in middle class Stratford-upon-Avon. These forays into Shakespeare’s biography travel on shaky ground as they rely more on DeVita’s suppositions than on historical facts. It's entertaining, nonetheless.

DeVita makes the most out of the chair and a crate, his primary props on the stage. The chair becomes the desk of the dean of Cambridge University for the McKellen bit, the crate becomes the bow of the fishing boat that DeVita straddles during a storm. The crate also serves as ¬†Shakespeare’s workbench as he sheers sheep, while the chair plays one of those sheep, a particularly rambunctious one (complete with DeVita-supplied bleatings interrupting Shakespeare's conversation with his dad). Another of the play’s highlights is Shakespeare the writer directing Richard Burbage in the first-ever rehearsal of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech, a Bob Newhart-caliber comedy routine.

His occasional stand-up comic style was centeral to a debate between two women behind us during the intermission. As one woman steadfastly stated she loved the show, her friend preferred to hear more of Shakespeare's biography and less of DeVita’s. “I could go to a comedy club to get that,” she said. I don't consider her conclusion the criticism she intended, for both DeVita's stand-up style and his autobiographical content are his play's primary strength.

There is no supposing as he recounts his own "lost years," from his poor grades in high school to his subsequent time spent on the fishing boats (a lifelong dream that dissolves over three years of unremitting and unrewarding labor) and his early non-success in the theater. When he applies for a college dramatic arts program he is required to audition with two monologues; not knowing the definition of that word, he finds a book of “party monologues” in the library that he uses for his text. At the auditioner's prompting for something other than a joke, DeVita went to a text he knew by heart, and we get his teen-self imitating Jaws’ Captain Quint describing the night his supply ship was torpedoed in shark-infested waters during World War II.

Evidence of a good actor is how bad he is when he intends to be. DeVita says he got into the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Professional Theater Training Program on, as described by one of his instructors, the worst audition ever by someone subsequently accepted into the program. He reprises that audition (Hamlet’s “rogue and peasant slave” soliloquy), and it is hilariously awful. With a desire to make Shakespeare’s words come to breathing life the way he saw McKellen do, DeVita coached himself by listening to albums of plays spoken by the likes of John Gielgud. As DeVita mimes the playing of a record (the crate now a turntable), he perfectly imitates Gielgud’s opening lines of Chorus in Henry V and then, lifting the needle off the turntable, does an over-accented imitation of himself trying to imitate Gielgud, the elocution of a Long Islander with an English accent. Not surprisingly, he made his stage debut as a horse in Equus—"Not the lead horse," he says; "I was part of the herd"—followed by being cast as a mute clown. He earned his Shakespearean debut at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival as a third citizen in Othello, but it wasn't until half way through the run that he finally was assigned his first Shakespearean line: “A sail! A sail!” Ironically, speaking that line perhaps finally drowned all his onetime dreams of life as a sailor.

More importantly, speaking that line was also a first step to being McKellen. But already he was Shakespeare. “He wrote us,” DeVita says. “He didn’t write anything new; he wrote what we all know.” Shakespeare was once a young boy with a dream, he was a son, a husband, and a father. DeVita recounts the first time he saw APT's outdoor theater set in a wooded hillside and wonders if his awe equaled that of Shakespeare entering one of London’s theaters for the first time. He presents his own father’s ghost moment while performing Hamlet in that theater. And he comes to the conclusion that while Shakespeare was just a regular guy, he was a fearless writer. “He would go anywhere … without judgment,” DeVita says. “And that’s what he asks of his actors.”

Trying to literally follow Sir Ian McKellen in his own show, as DeVita initially set out to do, could be called fearless, too. Thankfully, he realized his own life and career were equally important to the Shakespearean experience, and we consequently get this fearless performance, balancing many superb presentations of Shakespeare speeches with self-deprecating depictions. This could easily be titled “In Acting DeVita,” but that wouldn’t have the same marquee pull, would it? Though, on behalf of all the DeVitas out there, it should.

Eric Minton
January 25, 2013

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