James DeVita knows his Shakespeare, his audience and himself, as evidenced by Friday night's performance of In Acting Shakespeare, his one-man show about finding his calling as an actor.
Adapted from Sir Ian McKellen's Acting Shakespeare, the play premiered at American Players Theatre three summers ago. DeVita later took it on the road and re-tooled it. Directed by John Langs, this production is many things at once: a tribute to the playwright and his plays, an homage to actors and their roles, and a vehicle to showcase DeVita's prodigious talents. (If I had this much talent, I'd want to show off a bit, too, so I'll pardon a bit of the hamminess I witnessed in the Touchstone Theatre.)
DeVita saw McKellen's solo show back in 1987, on a class trip to New York City during community college. He recalls his awkwardness as he recounts this tale to the audience. While watching McKellen perform, DeVita sits on his hands because he's concerned they smell like the fish he just cleaned. This is the ultimate fish-out-of-water metaphor: DeVita spent years as a first mate on a boat off of Long Island, where he grew up.
This story illustrates one of the many the challenges DeVita faced when he fell in love with classical theater. Inspired by McKellen's ability to make Shakespeare accessible, he launches a quest to make the Bard's words "feel real" in his mouth. He wants to be a "regular guy" who happens to perform Shakespeare, an approach he likens to Gene Kelly's "regular guy" dancing.
DeVita morphs into characters from Shakespeare's plays and personal life, as well as those from his own life story. In doing so, he highlights the similarities between both of their lives. DeVita speculates how Shakespeare -- a small-town boy with only a grammar-school education -- got interested in theater. Both he and Shakespeare struggle to explain lofty and unfamiliar goals to their fathers. These vignettes humanize the Bard and reassure the audience that his work need not intimidate.
My favorite scenes involve DeVita auditioning for SUNY Stonybrook's drama department. Here, he plays both himself and the department's dean. The young DeVita auditions first with a joke found in a book of "party monologues" and then a famous scene from Jaws, inserting gory details about sharks attacking the crew of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. This tale is hilarious and easily wins over the audience. Unfortunately, the young DeVita does not impress the university's theater program. When he finally lands a small role in a summer Shakespeare festival, the audience claps with delight and relief.
DeVita then contrasts this experience with McKellen's more successful Cambridge audition, which features Henry V's rousing "Once more unto the breach" speech. The vivid interplay of DeVita, McKellen and Shakespeare feels the most organic.
Another resonant scene involves DeVita meeting his parents after an avant-garde production of King Lear. His father feels small, stupid and out of place while watching the performance, even though he appreciates his son's success. That's exactly the response that DeVita hopes to avoid by helping audiences find the truth and real life in Shakespeare's plays.
In jeans, cowboy boots, a white shirt and sometimes a suit jacket, DeVita employs only a cane, a chair, a wooden box and canvas briefcase -- and Fitz Patton's smart sound design -- to show how much these stories mean to him. As he says several times during the show, he trusts the audience will listen and imagine. By playing actors and their teachers, he helps the audience understand the craft and business of acting. Throughout the play, he engages the audience with his energy and disarms them with his self-deprecating wit.
Loyal fans of APT will delight in seeing a favorite cast member inhabit great roles such as Hamlet, Richard III, Henry V and Othello. Classical-theater novices will know they are welcome as well: Though DeVita is an exceptional talent, he is indeed a "regular guy" who performs Shakespeare.