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Or Not To Be 

The lamentable tale of a $250K Hamlet that played two nights and will never be forgotten

Thursday, Jun 24 2004
Cartoons by Christopher Pennock


Francesco Vitali, a would-be star of stage and screen, returned to his Bel Air home on the night of March 19, to the following phone message, which he saved for either posterity or the warm feelings it evoked: “Take my name off the fucking production, you fat bastard. You’ll never see me again. You’re going to have to beg me to come back to your piece of shit fucking show. Fuck you, Frankie.”

Vitali settled into a bathrobe, watched the moonlight playing across his garden and reflected on the challenges of making art, the difficulties of doing small theater in Los Angeles, and how events had led to such a dire circumstance.

The phone message was like an exclamation point on the end of a bad day that had seen Vitali and his haughty British director nearly come to blows.

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There was no turning back, though. After all, for close to a month, 12 strategically placed billboards promoting a production of Hamlet to be staged at the 85-seat Tamarind Theater had towered above various city streets — the most conspicuous being a tight shot on the brooding face of Greek-born actor/executive producer Francesco Vitali kissing Yorick’s skull that lorded over a tony strip of Sunset Boulevard near Crescent Heights. That single billboard cost either $33,000 or $38,000, depending on whether you believe the Viacom rep or Vitali. Either way, it cost more than the entire budget of most small-theater productions in the city.

Back at the Tamarind, on the same day he left the warm and fuzzy message for his star — and just three days before opening — Aaron Mullen, who taught and directed at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, tries to rehearse Act V: Hamlet’s death.

“Please just come downstage and say the line, Franko,” Mullen tells Hamlet (Vitali), who argues he’d rather die in Horatio’s arms, because “that’s the way it’s always done.”

(Shakespeare doesn’t specify where or on whom the Prince collapses. After Hamlet’s last line — “The rest is silence” — the stage direction reads: “Dies.”)

Polonius (Peter Deanda) leaves the theater for a drink next door at Birds.

“I left because I saw the fight coming,” he explains. “They’d moved into confrontational mode.”

Meanwhile, Claudius (Chris Pennock) lies on the stage floor, dead, like most of the characters at this point.

“Because I was face down, I didn’t see much,” says Claudius. “But I heard Aaron say that Hamlet is going to die on his feet. Francesco said something incomprehensible through his thick Greek accent, and Aaron took it a step further and said something like, ‘You’re going to have dignity, which is something you’ve not had in this entire run!’ I think this really pissed off Francesco.”

In his personal diary (which he submitted to the Weekly), Mullen remembers Vitali saying, “Don’t be a fucking jerk about this, Aaarone,” to which the director snapped back, “How about learning the fucking lines and speaking them clearly before you start directing.”

Claudius recalls exchanges by both men not entered in Mullen’s diary: “You fudge-packing little faggot,” “You motherfucker” and “You piece of shit.” Curiously, what really sent Vitali over the edge was when Mullen called him a “fat loser.” That’s when Vitali started screaming in Greek, Claudius reports.

Writes Mullen: “In a flourish, his Arden copy of Hamlet is ejected from his nicotined fingers and misses my head by a whisper. Laertes-like, I hurl my copy (heavier due to notes) straight back at him, wounding his shoulder. Proverbial hell now ensues, hot with expletives as the Dane leaps Fairbanks-like at my throat and would surely have garroted me had Osric and Horatio not leapt to my aid.”

“I don’t believe they made contact,” comments Claudius. “Aaron was the first one to leave, screaming, ‘You’ll have to beg me to come back’ — which, eventually, Francesco did. He begged everybody.”

Mullen claims Vitali fired him that day by ordering him out of the theater, which Mullen says terminated their contract and justified his soon-to-follow demand for $10,000 “grievance pay” to return and open the play the following week. (Mullen’s original contracted fee of $4,000 had been paid in full.)

“I never fired him,” Vitali insists. “He just walked away. I don’t remember saying get out of the theater. My advisers said I should accept this blackmail for the good of the production.”

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