James DeVita in a scene from “In Acting Shakespeare”
(Photo credit: Jacob J. Goldberg)
If you’re human, you’ve got to envy James DeVita. There he is, up there on the stage. He just ran up the side of the audience and jumped up to the stage as if it were nothing at all, as if he hadn’t given it a second thought, just natural, as natural as can be. As natural as Shakespeare. As natural as Shakespeare? Who is kidding whom? Im-pos-si-bull. And yet – there he is. Would you look at him twice on the street? Yes, I think, yes, you would because something shines out of James DeVita, some blessed force that compelled him to create himself as a Shakespearean actor, a natural Shakespearean actor when we all know there is no such thing in this world.
And how did this come about? DeVita’s written this enthralling, involving, illuminating stage piece, originally directed by John Langs, effectively lit by Jason Fassi, etched with sound by Fitz Patton, having thought about it for decades, after experiencing the blast of insight upon understanding Shakespeare for the first time. He’d seen Sir Ian McKellen in his showboat masterpiece, “Acting Shakespeare.” And DeVita fell in love. Oh, not with McKellen, DeVita’s too macho for that, no, worse, no, no, better, with Shakespeare. You know, the special preserve of only “smart people,” not ordinary guys from Long Guyland. That was the beginning of the remaking of James DeVita.
In this joy of a theater piece, DeVita sees their parallel lives: Will Shakespeare is from a small town, he’s from a small town; Will’s Pop is a working man, his Pop is a working man; Will reels from the blinding experience of having visiting actors opening worlds in his mind, DeVita is just as blown away by meeting Will 500 years later thanks to his introduction by McKellen. Yes, as fanciful as that. And what did Shakespeare do to become everything he became? Open himself to everything he could. And work. And work. And work.
So James got off the fishing boat he worked on 14 hours a day, 7 days a week and scrubbed his hands free – he hoped – of the fish smell and went to work. And work and work and work. He scrubbed off his Noo Yawk accent. He learned thousands of new words all from Shakespeare. And what they meant. And how to say them. And how every single person in the audience could hear him say them and mean them. And how to move with those incredible words, bigger than life but as natural as life so that everyone, not just “smart people” could understand and feel the magic that was inside themselves that Shakespeare touched.
So…did James receive his father’s blessing? Nay. James had a sensible father. Who finally admitted years later after seeing his son perform that he was proud of what James had accomplished but that he was too small, to ignorant to understand Shakespeare. Which crushed James. And gave him a mission. And here we are and here he is and he’s delighted we’re here and we’re over the moon, because not only does James give us the meaning, the sense, he gives us the movement, the flow, with incredible facility, incorporating body, mind and passion as if it were as natural as breathing. He has come long, arduous steps beyond the studied flair and posture of McKellen. He’s somehow taller, bigger, he fills the stage with comfort, ease, grace, as if it were the most natural of environments, this glorious show and tell.
Did I like it? Yeah. I liked it. And absolutely loved the courage, the determination, the steadfastness, the grit as well as the poetry. Visit. Awaken. It might even hurt.
In Acting Shakespeare (through February 3)
Pearl Theatre Company, 555 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-563-9261 or visit www.pearltheatre.org
Running time: one hour and forty-five minutes