In Acting Shakespeare is James DeVita's adaptation of Acting Shakespeare, a one-man show by Ian McKellen. American Players Theatre's DeVita isn't quite Sir Ian -- a luminary of both high and pop culture -- but he's as close to the mark as most of us mere mortals have any right to expect.
There aren't, maybe, as many agreed-upon benchmarks of artistic quality as there used to be, back before irony and blogs and snark rose to prominence. But for the most part, the Bard's backlist still holds up. What that means, though, is that anyone who invokes his name had better do it justice; you want to know you're in the hands of someone who knows what they're doing. DeVita conveyed the necessary level of confidence from the outset at Wednesday night's two-hour show in APT's new indoor Touchstone Theatre. He bounded down the aisle, brandished a cane and launched into lines from Richard III.
He earned laughs within seconds -- and laughs translate into trust, which he proceeded to cement by flowing from Shakespeare's words into his own honestly inspiring story. Raised in Long Island, DeVita dropped out of college twice and was working on a fishing boat during the third attempt, the one that stuck. It was that time around that he attended McKellen's performance in Manhattan, in 1983. He sat on his hands, he said, because he was sure everyone could smell fish on them.
In Acting Shakespeare is chock-full of those self-deprecating notes -- DeVita seemed as astonished as anyone that the kid who played Hotspur in Henry IV with a New Yawk accent was onstage attempting this audacious project two and a half decades later, and he mined that rich vein to frequent humorous effect. He recalled applying to a plenitude of acting schools in London, and the flurry of rejections that subsequently led him to Wisconsin, and one early, exasperated director telling him as a student, "You can't get any better at this by doing the same thing that you've always done harder."
That he remembers his struggles so well makes for a lot of funny moments, but more important, it underscores the major theme of the play: It's a testament to humility and the hard work that follows from it in the pursuit of one's vocation, rather than inherent talent.
And the results tell. Besides showcasing Shakespeare's verse and his personal history, DeVita has artfully weaved Shakespeare's own story into the play and a little bit of McKellen's, as well. (Though the playwright's notes claim that "some of Mr. McKellen's structure and wonderful writings remain," they're so well blended in that you can't figure out which parts they are.) The segues are seamless and organic -- at Wednesday's performance, when DeVita moved from a biographical bit into a monologue, it caught you slightly by surprise while still feeling perfectly natural.
Which was what he was aiming for. Near the end of the show, DeVita explains that he settled with APT because the troupe shared his philosophy of wanting to keep Shakespeare vital and accessible without diluting it, just as he saw McKellen do. This smart, heartfelt show should induce audiences to go home and break out the folios themselves.