By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Mar 31, 2011 at 9:01 AM

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.

After spending a few seasons in the Milwaukee Rep's resident acting company, DeVita settled in Spring Green with his wife to raise a family and perform on the APT's rustic outdoor stage. He has mastered the art of being real and natural on stage, speaking plainly and without artifice to an audience.

"In Acting Shakespeare" parallels DeVita's journey from fish scales to Elizabethan tales with Shakespeare's evolution from a working class son of a glove maker to a writer for the ages. The device is not an egotist's conceit but a statement about common men writing and acting for common people. This is the antidote for every stuffy teacher and smug actor who has turned you off of classical theater.

The play is simply staged with a chair and wooden crate on a nearly-bare plank platform. DeVita liberally larded it with self-deprecating humor and snippets of Shakespearean prose and verse. As a special treat, he provides comic samples of his before and after acting styles.

You don't want to miss this.

We know a lot less about fictional character Julia, the protagonist in the Next Act show, "A Sleeping Country." She is engaged to a soap opera scriptwriter, and she is suffering from a horrendous case of insomnia. That's all the play reveals.

Driven to the brink of insanity by her lack of sleep, the young woman surfs the internet for clues to her problem and discovers a real condition, Fatal Familial Insomnia, that obviously has a terminal outcome. The disorder is caused by a genetic mutation, and when Julia learns she shares the same last name with a Venetian countess dying from FFI, she guesses her days are numbered.

She withdraws from her flummoxed fiance and makes plans for suicide, but before swallowing a suitcase full of pills Julia heads to Venice to meet her fellow insomniac, Isabella Orsini. Holding court in her palatial villa, Isabella is a countess with the universal perspective of a goddess. She points the way for Julia.

Some people are going to have trouble with this play because of its clash of dissonant styles. The comic part of the piece is deliciously dark with a deep vein of vinegary cynicism that appears whenever Julia's old friend and psychiatrist is on stage. Next Act actress Tami Workentin nails the shrink with blunt and deadly accuracy.

But the Venetian segment goes a little Oprah on us. Cue the soft focus lens. What happened to the delightfully nasty nihilism?

Take a step back and survey the play's contrasting topography, keeping in mind that a drama can be good as well as messy. The pieces don't always have to perfectly fit. The humor here is quite tart and the lesson is wise as well as sweet.

Angela Iannone is perfectly cast as the countess. No one else in the state can deliver a line with such regal bite.

Julia must be likable and vulnerable for the play to work, and Betsy Skowbo contributes plenty of both qualities. Doug Jarecki shows his smooth versatility in three roles, including that of prospective husband.

"A Sleeping Country" is Next Act's final show in the Tenth Street Theatre, its temporary home this season. The next production will open the company's new Fifth Ward performance space in October.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.