Saturday, March 26, 2011

Hanging Out Backstage Onstage With James DeVita

Renaissance Theaterworks welcomes DeVita’s take on IN ACTING SHAKESPEARE

By Russ Bickerstaff
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As the Milwaukee Rep’s Bomb-itty Of Errors brings a Shakesepare/old-school hip-hop fusion to the stage of the Stackner Cabaret, Renaissance Theaterworks presents another tribute to the playwright to a much smaller stage a few blocks further south. As much potential as a hip-hop fusion has for introducing new audiences to Shakespeare, James DeVita’s unique take on In Acting Shakespeare would likely be far more effective in this respect. DeVita’s personalized adaptation of the show originated by Sir Ian McKellan over twenty years ago, In Acting Shakespeare is the story of a blue collar guy from New Jersey who has found tremendous success on one of Wisconsin’s most prestigious stages. Presented in the intimate space of the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre, DeVita’s In Acting Shakespeare brings a number of Shakespearian excerpts to the stage with an irresistibly conversational tone capable of being exceedingly appealing to just about anyone willing to listen.

DeVita walks out onstage in jeans, a button-down white shirt and a suit coat. He could be showing-up to teach a university class or rehearsal of some sort. Something of a late-comer to acting, DeVita didn’t really become committed to it until he saw McKellan onstage doing his In Acting Shakespeare. DeVita was floored by how accessible and conversational he’d made Shakesepeare. Using his own distinctive voice and personality, DeVita’s greatest success here is making the show feel exceedingly informal and approachable. In and amidst some of Shakespeare’s greatest hits, we hear the story of a guy who wanted to be a fisherman, but ended up being a really talented Shakespearian actor. In the intimate space of the Broadway Theatre Center’s  Studio Theatre, DeVita’s conversational approach to the one-man show is charming enough to make it feel like everyone in the audience is running into him back stage or in the lobby after a show

DeVita’s charming affability feels exceedingly informal—but it takes a great deal of work for something to feel this informal onstage. Jason Fassl has woven a really clever and subtly effective lighting scheme around DeVita. Anyone familiar with DeVita’s work at the Amerrican Players Theatre will instantly recognize the distinct grey wood grain of the bare stage of the APT’s Up The Hill outdoor theatre. Fitz Patton’s sound design peppers the air with very minimal and surprisingly effective sound effects. Oddly enough, without those minimal formal bits of production design, the show wouldn’t feel nearly as informal . . .

The brilliant little bit of unspoken composition here is that DeVita, who crafted the story of his life around the format of  the show, is also an author. Here we see a successful actor who has also met some success as an author talking about Shakespeare—a toweringly successful  playwright who also met some success as an actor. There’s a really nice balance to the composition. It's a balance that doesn’t make it into the foreground of the production because DeVita never mentions his own writing. The man who has written a number of scripts for First Stage Children’s Theatre and at least one children’s novel clearly has a love of the language and storytelling and it’s brought across with striking clarity here. This is a man who loves words—loves the language onstage talking about a man who loves words—loves the language. That this man has made a living also being onstage makes DeVita’s In Acting Shakespeare a great deal of fun.

A man who had a great deal of difficulty covering for a workin’ class New Jersey accent can also be heard speaking a standard Midwestern accent, various British ones and a strange an comical British/New Jersey mishmash. For someone who has seen a great deal of Shakespeare onstage over the years, its really interesting to see one guy illustrating his progress as an actor over the years with various styles of Shakespearian monologue. One of the more bizarrely captivating moments actually involves a monologue from Jaws, oddly enough. And as good as most of it is, even DeVita can’t quite make the to be or not to be soliloquy live up to its beauty onstage . . . he sneaks-up on it cleverly enough, but it’s still virtually impossible to bring to the stage. I’m still of the impression that . . . there was only one point in history in which that monologue was ever executed perfectly—it could’ve been the first time it was ever performed, it could’ve been in a rehearsal at some point somewhere in the past hundred years . . . or it could’ve been some kid in high school reading it aloud in class the first time. That monologue’s perfection makes it tragically delicate. It shatters every time it’s spoken aloud by anyone. It would be mirculous to ever hear it uttered with just the right force to keep it intact. DeVita may not be able to bring that kind of miracle to the stage, but his In Acting Shakespeare cleverly renders the humanity behind stage alchemy.

Renaissance Theaterworks’ presentation of James DeVita’s In Acting Shakespeare runs through April 17th at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre. For reservations 414-291-7800.


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