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In Acting Shakespeare
DeVita, who grew up on Long Island and worked on fishing boats off Long Island sound as a 24 year old, reveals during the evening that he had a life-changing experience as a young man by going on a class trip to New York City and seeing McKellen perform his Acting Shakespeare. He was astonished that an actor could perform chestnuts from Shakespeare’s canon and make them sound like conversational speech. From that moment, he was resolved to follow in the steps of this illustrious actor. And he did.
In his presentation of In Acting Shakespeare DeVita leans heavily on the structure of McKellen’s original project but infuses it with genuine American flavor. According to a Back Stage interview in December 2012, he relied on the advice of John Langs that he should emphasize his own journey as an actor rather than overly echoing McKellen’spiece. The happy result, directed by Langs, is that DeVita’s semi-autobiographical show uses Acting Shakespeare as a point of departure rather than as a strict template for this theatrical enterprise.
I don’t want to make more of the show than it is. But DeVita curiously gains one’s admiration by not posturing himself as the American McKellen. His success could even be measured by the fact that on the surface he’s the very antithesis of the famous thespian.
DeVita (he of the handsome face and short height) doesn’t have the patrician physique or the “old school” credentials of the renowned English actor (McKellen is a Cambridge alum whose classmates were Derek Jacobi, David Frost, Peter Cook, and Trevor Nunn, founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company). Nonetheless, he pulls you in by plunging into his embarrassments as a young would-be actor, and then proving that this ugly duckling would yet be a swan.
One of the highpoints of the evening is his recounting of his successful audition in New York for the University of Wisconsin— Milwaukee’s drama program (DeVita had already received a raft of rejection letters from the State University of New York at Stonybrook, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and several other prestigious drama schools in England). His personal triumph is related with much relish and comedic flair, and a soupcon of humility.
You can’t help but melt when he shares that one of the old teachers at the school frankly told him, years later, that he was “the person of the least ability he’d ever seen accepted into the program.” DeVita pregnantly pauses here and looks out into the audience, freshly registering the memory again with a quizzical expression and the quiet words: “Thank you . . . I think.”
There’s more, of course, that the teacher disclosed to DeVita about his audition that day that tipped the balance in his favor and sparked his acting career. But why be a spoiler? You really should go to the show and listen to all the details first-hand.
Good as the production is, it isn’t flawless. Yes, the spick and span stage is spot on, with only a plain wooden desk, chair, and crate to serve the dramatic moments during the evening. One prop is missing, however. Having the Bard’s Complete Works in view would anchor the presentation more solidly. And if a physical book smacks of academia too much, then perhaps its digitalized equivalent via an ipad would make the canon and entire show sing in the present tense.
If DeVita’s retooling of McKellen’s Acting Shakespeare doesn’t quite reach the grand poetic heights of the original, does it really matter? It's is really an act of faith by this plucky American actor, who winkingly states at one point during the show that he aspires to be the “Gene Kelly of Shakespeare,” tapping out the iambic pentameters until they regain a conversational tone.
McKellen’s shadow may hover over the stage. But DeVita, in paying homage to his brilliant predecessor, makes his own mark.
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