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Not only is An Improbable Fiction a world-premiere by APT company member James DeVita, it is a celebration of all things Shakespeare, featuring some of your favorite characters in a brand new set of circumstances. It is charming and poignant, and not to be missed. We chatted with playwright Jim DeVita and actor Brian Mani who plays Falstaff, about this brand new play and the conclusion of the Out of the Woods play-reading series.
A new play, a long friendship and a company of actors who’ve worked together for years culminate in an emotional close to APT’s Out of the Woods play-reading series this Friday with the premiere of An Improbable Fiction by James DeVita.
In the early days of the Covid lockdowns, an anecdote was making the rounds on the socials, centering around the idea that Shakespeare wrote some of his greatest greats - including King Lear - during the plague when theaters were shut down. The intention of this particular meme seemed to be to keep people motivated; to remind us that difficult times can also be times of great inspiration. For playwright and Core Company actor Jim DeVita, that wasn’t something he was considering – at least, not at first.
“I didn't feel like writing,” Jim said. “And I write all the time - it really keeps me sane. But yeah. Nothing was coming to me. I have a book I want to finish, and I had no desire to work on that. And I think I said this just joking, ‘you know, what I should write is a play set in the plague where all the actors are out of work, like us, and sitting around in a bar.’ And then I was like, hmm...”
Once the seed had been planted, it became hard to ignore. “When the idea came to me, I really did just start with, well, who would be in a bar? And it would be Falstaff and Mistress Quickly. And in my imagination, you know, it’s this packed bar where Falstaff usually holds court every night. He's the life of the party. And suddenly there's nobody there. And it's just Falstaff and he's bored to death. And he misses his friends.”
Core Company Actor Brian Mani’s last pre-pandemic project was, incidentally, playing Falstaff at the Folger Theatre in Washington DC. He has played the character in APT’s productions of Henry IV: The Making of a King (2008) and The Merry Wives of Windsor (2015). And now he plays Falstaff again in his best friend’s newest play.
Jim and Brian met in college in Milwaukee 30 odd years ago, and have been friends ever since. And even though both of them have worked at APT for decades, they rarely work together. This made working on this play reading a rare pleasure, even though the stage is a virtual one. “We are usually in different plays, or if we're in the same plays, we're in different plot lines where we don't even talk to each other. But of course it's happened a few times, and Of Mice and Men was one of those,” Brian said. Another was Waiting for Godot in 2010. And though they don't get to work together on stage as much as they might like, the relationship they've built over the years comes through in this reading. “I trust Jimmy completely," Brian said. "And he's very free with his writing. He will cut the most beautiful line in the show if it makes something go on too long, or if the emotion isn't right, he'll let it go. So I feel really comfortable in the room with him…it's easy to be vulnerable in front of him. And there are moments in this play that I recognize as moments that I've kind of been around for with him. So I can tap into that, I know what it means. Not everything. But moments.”
The play may have started with Falstaff, and continued with the friendship between the playwright and primary actor, but it comes to life thanks to several other Core Company actors, each of which Jim had in mind when he wrote the characters. Jim said, “One of the blessings of being in a company – there are so few in the country or the world today, true companies – but to actually get to write specifically for actors that you know is a gift. And the double fun was writing for some of the actors who had done the very roles I was writing them into. So as I'm writing and imagining things, I'm literally seeing Tracy (Tracy Michelle Arnold) make a choice or say something as Cleopatra. And I knew I wanted Nate (Nate Burger) as the Messenger, because I could see through him, right to his heart all the time. So yes, I definitely wrote for the actors that I had in mind. And of course Brian was Falstaff. And so when I started with Falstaff and Quickly (played by Sarah Day), both those actors had played those roles, so that was in my mind. In the movie in my head.”
Brian took a sabbatical from APT in 2019 to perform in Scotland, in a play written by his wife, playwright Marie Kohler. He said he feels like reading Falstaff in An Improbable Fiction gives him an opportunity to gather a bit of the APT joy that he missed last year. “Last season, I was able to see The Book of Will. And what I most missed, when I saw it, I thought, oh, I really want to be up there! And this play has that same sort of feeling – of getting to see another facet of Shakespeare. And yet, it's not so meta that you don't recognize Shakespeare in it. And it's so fun.”
Not only did Jim write the parts for these actors, but collaborated with them and director Tim Ocel on the play itself, which went through many drafts in the three months since its inception. “I was making changes up to the last minute. 20 minutes before the show I said, can we just change this one line?,” Jim said. “But having directed Melisa (Melisa Pereyra) as Juliet, and knowing her as a person, and knowing the spirit she put in her Juliet, that informed my rendering of Juliet in this. And Gavin (Gavin Lawrence) said, you know, he was interested in seeing a side of Othello that we don't see a lot. And so we brought out in Othello the question of what kind of challenges he faces in a nearly all-white world of Shakespeare? It’s helpful to get the actors’ input. Because I've got this big idea, and it's pretty general at first. But actors look at every word of their role very, very specifically.”
The final collaborator on this play was Shakespeare himself. Much of the dialogue is pulled from Shakespeare’s own writings, and crafted in new ways to create new versions of beloved characters. “I think it's probably a good 80% Shakespeare,” Jim said. “And then actually like another 10% is his language, but adapted. And I can't even think of all the meta moments that happen. Brian looking at Melisa, who is Juliet, and calling her Cordelia, which she also played in King Lear. It's just fun. And hopefully, if I’ve done it well, it's just kind of a brushstroke of something. And if you recognize, oh my gosh, that's from that play, that’s great. But it’s not necessarily the point.”
The Out of the Woods series has been, by and large, a great pleasure to work on for the APT staff and actors we’ve spoken to, and hopefully, for the audience to experience. It has been an interesting and complicated and fulfilling project, and its end is bittersweet.
Talking to Brian just a few days before recording An Improbable Fiction, he said, “This series has been amazing. Sunday is going to feel like closing night, even though the shows are going to run in rep for another six weeks. So I'm relishing these last moments, and I'll get emotional if I talk about it too much. But the music in the show is beautiful. Tim Ocel's fantastic, and I have a new appreciation for our Core Company. Having been away last year, it's just so great to be among a company that is this conscientious, this sensitive, this talented. And we've been in this microcosm, this little nutshell of working on these plays. I have felt lucky to have this little crucible to be in. I think that's all.”
An Improbable Fiction, 2020
By James DeVita. Directed by Tim Ocel.
Featuring: Brian Mani (Falstaff), Sarah Day (Mistress Quickly). Also featuring Tracy Michelle Arnold, Nate Burger, Gavin Lawrence, Melisa Pereyra. Narrator: Tim Gittings.
Jacqueline Singleton: Stage Manager. Eva Breneman: Voice and Text Coach. Gregg Coffin: Sound Composer.