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In Acting Shakespeare

James DeVita hits the occasional lopsided verse, but all is forgiven when his ambitious one-man display of expert Shakespearean nuance abandons its side notes for soliloquies.

James DeVita
There's a dose of the autobiographical, the biographical and, most important and impressive, the lyrical waiting for you in James DeVita's In Acting Shakespeare, now running at The Pearl Theatre . A heartfelt tribute, the production is similar to a one-man show, Acting Shakespeare, that Sir Ian McKellen (he of un-Shakespearean Lord of the Rings fame) performed to critical and popular acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. And though any performer might be considered foolhardy for inviting comparisons between their talents and those of the Tony and Olivier Award-winning McKellen, DeVita demonstrates formidable chops when it comes to delivering the Bard's verse.

You encounter DeVita's talents within moments of his taking to the stage when he launches into an excerpt from Richard III. Not only does he transform into the murderous hunchbacked monarch with a chameleon-like skill, warping his body to what appears to be an almost painful degree, he delivers a soliloquy about Richard's plans to ascend to England's throne with pitch-perfect clarity. He also creates in the space of this one speech a portrait of gleeful malevolence and oily charisma that would suffice for a full production of the actual play.

DeVita's ability to instantaneously drop into the Bard's words and characters resurfaces repeatedly throughout the show. Other highlights include his spot-on rendering of a malaprop-laden speech from the Spaniard Don Armado from Love's Labour's Lost, and a potent, grief-filled lament from Queen Constance that's taken from King John.

There are more famous speeches in the show as well, including "To be or not to be …" from Hamlet and the galvanizing war cry that's so familiar from Henry V. And in each of these, DeVita, while not entirely banishing more famed interpretations from actors ranging from Laurence Olivier to Kenneth Branagh to McKellen himself, displays a keen ability to mine the language. He makes even the most obscure words and phrases feel remarkably contemporary and powerfully immediate.

DeVita's felicitous delivery of Shakespeare would be more than enough to fill an evening at the theater, and on some levels, In Acting Shakespeare might be more successful if it contained only selections from the Bard's plays. But as with McKellen's show, DeVita frames his excerpts with his tales from his own life--including the night in which seeing McKellen perform inspired him to become an actor--and anecdotes about Shakespeare's world, some real and some simply imagined.

In many of these instances, sadly, the show stalls. Part of the problem is that DeVita's path to the stage – which begins on Long Island where he grew up in love with the ocean and fishing, rather than the theater – is at odds with the subject matter. There's only so much amusement one can get out of his relating how unaware he was of theater practices. One hysterical exception, though, comes when he revisits the choices he made when he first auditioned for college.

Further, the sections in which he imagines what Shakespeare's relationship with his father might have been or what awe the dramatist might have felt when seeing his first show, come across today as clichéd. You have to remember when McKellen first offered such inventions, it was in a pre-Shakespeare in Love world. DeVita also has not updated some of the factual elements of the show. At one point, he states unequivocally that the Bard wrote 37 plays, the generally accepted number some 25 or 30 years ago. At this juncture, though, the number is somewhere between 38-40, as growing scholarly evidence has added works like Edward III and Cardenio to the canon.

But these are mere quibbles in a production that captivates, particularly when DeVita's performance is so ably abetting by Jason Fassl's lighting design that subtly washes the stage with light greens, purples and yellows to shift mood and indicate locations. It's a design that's almost a beautifully delicate as DeVita's continually impressive work with Shakespeare's words.