Milwaukee theater's Italian connection
Italians took center stage in two major theater openings here last weekend. Renaissance Theaterworks is devoting its final production of the season to a non-fiction Italian-American character, Spring Green actor James DeVita.
Next Act Theatre is closing out its season with a trip to Venice to meet a larger-than-life fictional Italian countess who becomes a sage for a troubled young American woman.
The Renaissance show is "In Acting Shakespeare," DeVita's engrossing and entertaining autobiography of how a Long Island fisherman became a world-class classical actor. The two act, one-man play debuted in the American Players Theatre's indoor Touchstone Theater in the summer of '09.
Melanie Marnich's slightly fantastical "A Sleeping Country" is Next Act's darkly comedic contribution to our current theatrical buffet. Like so many contemporary dramatists, Marnich pays the bills working in television -- writer, story editor and producer for "Big Love" -- while also creating for regional theater.
DeVita's story is a faint echo of "Pygmalion." More interested in fishing and the sea, which was 15 minutes from his childhood home on Long Island, than he was in academics, DeVita made three attempts at attending community college.
The third time around connected him to theater and the arts, and he was able to gain admission to the late and lamented Professional Theatre Training Program at UWM. It was the 1980s.
Although his talent was raw and his technique was primitive, DeVita flashed a potential that was quickly spotted by the UWM faculty, and the development of a classical actor commenced. The fisherman's Long Island accent, thick as a fog hanging over the Sound, was the biggest challenge facing student and teachers.
DeVita discusses in "In Acting Shakespeare" how speech and voice are an essential part of personal identity. He asks, if someone changes the way you communicate and express yourself, are you still the same person?
The student was willing to experiment with that because he was inspired and driven by the great actors' ability to simply talk to an audience from a stage. Seeing British actor Ian McKellen display that in 1983 in New York was the source of his interest in theater.
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