James DeVita is a smart, amiable, blue-collar guy from Long Island. He was not a great high school student, and after graduation he decided to work on a boat—the sum total of his ambition up until that point. But after three years, and after a particularly memorable night watching Ian McKellen in Acting Shakespeare, Mr. DeVita changed his mind. He wanted to be a blue-collar Long Islander who just happened to “speak poetry,” the Gene Kelly of Shakespeare. He wanted to make the Bard accessible, immediate, to make the texts come alive for the people he grew up around, like his buddy Sal Galati. Never mind that he had an accent that could “scrape the paint off doors.”
In Acting Shakespeare, Mr. DeVita’s one-man show about his journey from there to here, is a charming if slight piece. It is split, more or less, into two parts: recitations and semi-lectures about the playwright and humorous stories about the unlikely actor. The former parts are a little light and juvenile. At one point, he muses on the young life of Shakespeare—The Lost Years—asking us to imagine his first heartbreak, guessing that perhaps her name was “Phoebe,” either ignoring or not realizing the fact that young Will was more likely to swoon over a person with a name like “Alistair” or “Winston.” And in recreating his initial journey to London, Mr. DeVita notes that Shakespeare would have seen his first Jew—though any Jew in England at the time would have been practicing in secret, as they had been officially expelled nearly three hundred years prior. In perhaps his weakest moment, Mr. DeVita beams, “Shakespeare loved words,” an insight unlikely to be new for anyone in the audience.
But when he is speaking about himself, Mr. DeVita shines. The best moment of the night comes when he recounts his audition before the Dean of Fine Arts at SUNY Stonybrook: asked to prepare a monologue, but unfamiliar with the word, he checks The Book of Party Monologues out of the library. “Which is basically a book of jokes,” he tells us. “It’s a joke book.” Later, pressed to recite something “a little more serious,” he gives a passionate rendition from Jaws, a movie he saw twenty-seven times in the theater. Unsurprisingly, SUNY Stonybrook did not let him in. Then, there is the extended period of his student career (in Wisconsin) where he couldn’t tell the difference between pronouncing the word “maw-narch” and “mah-narch,” a real-life version of the untrue but oh-so-delightful “Yonder lies da castle of my foddah” story.
Ultimately, Mr. DeVita is passionate enough to overcome his intellectual shortcomings, and his endearing love for Shakespeare triumphs over his uninspired take on the man’s life. At the end of the show, he quips, “Thank you on behalf of the entire cast,” a knowingly bad joke that is somehow better than any good one would be. Perhaps he has, in fact, become the Gene Kelly of Shakespeare.