In Acting Shakespeare
Given all the things that have been done with William Shakespeare (or to him, depending on one’s bias) in the centuries since his death, it’s understandable that some people avoid attending his work today. Avant-garde experimentations, re-imaginings set everywhere from the White House to the Alamo, and distillations/deconstructions a la "The Donkey Show" and "Sleep No More" leave little else but scratchy phonographs in library basements for anyone who wants to experience a performance of the Bard in his plain old, unadorned iambic pentameter.
But one can argue that even the greatest hits of Caedmon Records have distanced generations from engaging with our language’s premier poet. Whether lauded or laughable, those who aren’t already predisposed tend to brush off rather than brush up their Shakespeare, vacillating somewhere between boredom and intimidation.
It’s from this premise that James DeVita pounces in his refreshing one-man show, "In Acting Shakespeare," currently at the Pearl Theatre Company. Or perhaps "pounces" is an outdated word for DeVita, as he now exudes a gentle, down to earth nature.
Yes, the actor possesses an enviably strong instrument, both vocally and physically. But it is not a showy thing, squeezing mileage out of genes that bestow upon luckier actors a treetop frame or rich baritone. Rather, it is the personification of clarity and precision.
Indeed, DeVita’s present talents owe nothing to his DNA, he tells us, and are in stark contrast to the bombastic and undisciplined student performer he was in his twenties. Short in stature, he overcompensated by assaulting audiences with scattershot energy and a Long Island accent. His evolution into the performer now on display is a solid testament to the increasingly suspect and much corrupted conservatory training model.
A special connection to William Shakespeare is at the heart of the show, but it isn’t a connection DeVita stakes out as his own personal property. It’s an invitation. His mission is to present Shakespeare as "normal people talking," and reach the common man. Lest the monocled set harrumph and tut-tut, presuming this is an exercise in dumbing down, fear not. There isn’t a syllable uttered here that wouldn’t be welcome in the nation’s finest theaters, and DeVita’s aim is to convince the common man that he has a place in those theaters too.
In between snippets and soliloquies, DeVita weaves a biographical sketch of the young Bard and contrasts it against his own youth, giving us a couple of working-class provincial boys dreaming of something that’s supposed to be unobtainable by people like them.
The play imagines scenes between Shakespeare and his circle, often sentimental, but always funny enough to keep them from becoming maudlin. None of this is verifiable history, of course, but it’s supported by enough scholarship to make it all plausible.
Supporting DeVita are the wonderfully evocative lighting and sound designs by John Fassl and Fitz Patton, respectively. They adeptly punctuate all shifts in pacing and tone, adding flourish to DeVita’s finesse. A crate, satchel and chair comprise the whole set, and the last of these provides an anthropomorphic delight in a sheep-shearing scene. If Clint Eastwood had made as imaginative a use of his empty chair, perhaps Mitt Romney would have won more votes.
As for those snippets, it is a very "Hamlet"-heavy showcase. Convincing the masses that Shakespeare really is accessible, really is one of them, is a bit easier to do when you lean on so many of the chestnuts. One wishes for a wider selection. But to his credit, it’s not an extended audition. DeVita’s work makes us want to see him play Shakespeare in full production and context, but his age and gender would rule out most of the roles he presents here. So there seems to be no ulterior motive.
There are also times when we wish DeVita’s personal devotion to the poet would stay a little more "this side of idolatry," as Ben Jonson put it. We can all agree that Shakespeare was a regular Shakespeare, yes, but watching someone manufacture emotional awe for a man no one has spoken to in four hundred years puts a slight strain on credulity. Especially when the man was as litigious as Shakespeare and would doubtless place an injunction on this whole shebang if he were alive today. I’m not sure the pope gets this reverential about Jesus.
The same is also true of the play’s focus on Ian McKellen’s famous solo show of an almost identical name, from which this is "freely adapted." DeVita was first inspired to become an actor when he saw McKellen in performance, but surely that performance said nothing about sneaking into "Jaws," moving to Wisconsin, or a childhood chum named Sal Galati. There doesn’t seem to be any danger of plagiarizing McKellen with this effort, and emphasizing the email exchanges seeking permission from a secretary rings as a bit of a trumped up ploy to bandy his name about.
Still, since Sir Ian seems content to leave today’s generation with little more than Gandalf and "The X-Men," I suppose someone should take up the neglected mantle. If James DeVita isn’t going to be anointed, he might as well usurp it, and it would do us all a lot of good.
Long live the king.
"In Acting Shakespeare" runs until Feb. 3 at the Pearl Theatre Company, 555 West 42nd Street in Manhattan. For tickets and info, call 212-563-9261 or visit www.pearltheatre.org.