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Or Not To Be

Cartoons by Christopher Pennock

Prologue

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.

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.”

 

“That was terrible, what Aaron [Mullen] did,” says Francesco Vitali’s publicist, Eileen Koch, who was one of those advisers: “I felt very sorry for Francesco; regardless of how flamboyant he was, he might be, in due honesty, he’s a little involved with himself, and that’s fine, but I think Aaron is not a nice person, that’s my feeling. I think Francesco is a delicate person. I think because this meant so much to him, he was easily taken advantage of. I told him, you’ve invested so much time and money into this project.”

Koch says she advised Vitali to pay, whether or not it was blackmail.

“How could you not open?” she told him. After a moment of reflection, Koch adds, “That might have not been the greatest advice.”

A performer in the show who wished to remain off the record said that Mullen had called the actors individually after the fight, trying to persuade them to boycott rehearsals until his demands had been met. Among those demands, outlined in an e-mail dated March 22, are: that all Sunday matinee box-office returns be distributed equally among the cast (who received no compensation from the producers, despite the production’s six-figure budget); that Vitali put up Claudius (who lives in Idyllwild) in a hotel; that Vitali employ a professional voice/diction coach; that he learn his lines authoritatively within two days of opening; that he yield full artistic authority to the director; and that (item 10), “Franko agrees to pay the Director ten thousand dollars (in full and immediately) in the form of a cashier’s check.” The actor reported that Mullen made no mention to the cast of item 10.

A few weeks ago it had all looked so encouraging. George Clooney and his Section 8 production company had just shown up wanting to film rehearsals for an upcoming HBO series. They offered to pay the actors a small fee, and Horatio (Nick Cagle) even got his Screen Actors Guild membership from the deal. It was all like a pleasant dream.

But how does a man with no stage training and a poor command of the English language wind up playing Hamlet in the middle of Hollywood? And what marketing genius suggested $35,000 billboards to advertise an 85-seat theater production? Yet, given such extravagant publicity, why didn’t Hamlet learn his lines? What were they thinking? All of them?

“Theater is my great love,” Vitali says. “I can’t imagine not doing theater.”

 

Act 1

Francesco Vitali was born in 1969 to an Italian father and Greek mother in Athens, where he grew up. His father still owns a steel factory there, and his mother is a retired dermatologist, which means that Vitali had a financially privileged if emotionally rigorous upbringing. When 13-year-old Vitali told his father that he wanted to be an actor, the elder Vitali replied, “My son is never, never going to become an actor, so forget about that.”

When Vitali turned 15, his father refused to let him sit idle for the summer holiday and insisted the teenager either work at his factory or find another job. That’s when Vitali decided to try to get work as a journalist — a job where he might at least have some proximity to his nation’s leading actors and directors.

“So, I went straight to the field chairman, Alexandros Phillipopoulos, of the biggest newspaper in Greece [Ethnos, translated as Nation]. In the lobby, the chairman’s handlers were screaming at me to get out, but Alexandros opened his door. ‘What’s going on here, young man?’ he said.”

According to Vitali, the chairman invited the boy into his office, and Vitali handed him a recently penned composition, which the chairman read while the teen offered to work as an intern for free.

Says Vitali, “He called the head of Pireas [the newspaper’s Port of Athens bureau], so I started working.”

After a couple of months, a hunger-striking prisoner was hospitalized, and all the journalists in Athens were vying for an interview with the dying man.

“My job was mainly to hang around the office and serve people coffee,” Vitali remembers, “but I took the decision to go to the hospital, to find a supervisor, and beg her to help me get into his room, because it’s my only chance to prove myself worthwhile, or they would fire me.”

It was Vitali’s first acting role. He says a hospital supervisor allowed Vitali to don a nurse’s uniform and speak with the prisoner. After Phillipopoulos heard the interview tape, he put Vitali on salary.

Having died in 1990, Phillipopoulos was unavailable to confirm his participation in Vitali’s professional ascent, though reporter Yanos Floros, who has worked at Ethnos for 18 years, told the Weekly he has never heard of Vitali; however, Vitali’s friend, actress Mary Chronopoulou, confirmed that Vitali had written celebrity lifestyle articles for Ethnos.

 

Vitali says that opportunities opened up for him after he became a journalist, that he had his own radio show for years and that he worked for a spell as a cross-dressing TV talk-show host interviewing Greek celebrities in the first such cable show on air in Greece.

At the age of 19, he says he opened a talent management company, which became the largest source of his personal income.

“It was a new concept then,” he explains. “The Greeks didn’t know what a talent manager was. By law, there was the danger that you’ll be defined as a pimp, a promoter of actors and actresses — we’re talking 16 years ago.”

Meanwhile, he was engaged to marry a woman whom his family didn’t approve of because she was 10 years older. They’d already been dating for three and a half years when 17-year-old Vitali moved out of his parents’ home to be with her. He says she eventually left him to protect him from the wrath of his family. Vitali says he did finally marry another woman, but divorced before he left Greece for America in 1997.

“It was always my dream, America. I first came to New York with 10 bags and a huge attitude that I was the new star. I was very spoiled in my country from being a celebrity.”

(The Weekly spoke with several people at the Los Angeles press office of the Greek Consulate. None could verify Vitali’s celebrity status in Greece, even after making inquiries within Athens arts circles. Similarly, the president of the Greek Film Center in Athens said he had not heard of Vitali. Once again, Chronopoulou defended her friend by saying that Vitali was once well-known among Athens’ community of actors.)

“So I walked in and said, ‘Okay, here I am!’” Vitali continues. “When I first got to JFK, I got in a cab without a clue to where I was going. The driver said, ‘Where to?’ I spoke no English, I said ‘New York.’ He said, ‘Buddy, this is New York, where are you going?’ I couldn’t understand what he was trying to say. I kept saying ‘New York, New York.’ He took me to Manhattan. The only place that I knew from the movies was the Plaza Hotel. I couldn’t afford it, but I had to stay there the first night. I came with a lot of money. My corporation was very successful. But when you start your life in a new country, things are not easy, even a closet full of money is not enough. It’s never enough.”

Vitali lived in both New York and Chicago and says that he performed in small theaters within those cities’ Greek communities before he arrived in Los Angeles in the fall of 2001.

 

Act 2, Scene 1

In April 2003, Vitali took in a one-man show starring Butch Hammond at the Tamarind Theater on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood. Shortly after, he called the theater’s co-owners, Nick Alan and Tom Kendall, about buying the Tamarind.

After 16 years of renting, producing and co-producing at their theater, Kendall told Vitali that the pair was “entertaining just about anything right now.”

Alan negotiated a deal that was part purchase, part sublease with an option to buy. Alan and Kendall would retain possession of the building and serve as a bank for Vitali’s monthly mortgage installments and operating costs. Meanwhile, Vitali would own the theater’s producing wing, the Tamarind Actor’s Studio, and thereby take over as the theater’s artistic director.

“He wanted the contract signed on June 18 because of numerology and astrology or whatever,” Alan explains. “We thought that was odd.”

Vitali immediately started remodeling the theater, replacing the marquee and installing an ornate chandelier in the lobby. For his own dressing room, he had a florid “V” engraved on the door.

That summer, Vitali approached English director Di Trevis — one of the first female directors employed by Richard Eyre at London’s National Theatre — to work at the Tamarind. Trevis, in turn, contacted the theater’s managing director, Brett Baker, and told him she was interested in re-staging a production she had directed at the National entitled Berliner Cabaret in repertory with Harold Pinter’s one-act Ashes to Ashes. The latter, a two-character play, would feature Vitali and Diana Jellinek, an actress with Broadway credits. Baker accepted Trevis’ offer to produce the repertory.

 

And though Vitali paid his mortgage and operating costs through 2003, a contractor simply named “Chance,” who was helping with the reconstruction at the time, says that Vitali had a habit of reneging on paychecks. “I got my money, but a personal assistant of his got smoked for a bunch of money.” (That assistant, Theresa Patten, confirms that she was not paid her final check. There were also disputes over payments with contractors hired to paint the theater’s interior, with the production’s constumer, and the billboard and brochure photographer.) At the same time, Vitali was leasing a brand-new Jaguar.

Vitali was clearly unpopular on the bustling block, with many locals speaking about his imperiousness and how he belittled local restaurant staff. Birds owner Mary Preston shrugs all that off, though she did say that one day the actors entered her restaurant through the fire door in the rear and helped themselves to soft drinks because “Francesco said it was fine.”

Vitali denies ever saying or approving such a thing.

“These people misunderstood me,” he explains. “People who never met me in person all have an opinion of me, because of stories. They think I’m Onassis, arrogant. I always felt a big negativity there. I never had this problem in Chicago or New York. Even in other parts of Los Angeles. I adore Los Angeles. That’s one of the reasons I chose to be here. But I’ll give you an example: I’m going every day supporting your business, eating in your restaurant, and you never come to spend $25 to see one of my productions. I did 11 productions in the year I was there. [Vitali’s account includes independent production companies renting the theater.] The neighbors were completely indifferent. I don’t think that they wanted me there. I understand.”

 

Scene 2

October 2003. In what some consider a moment of cosmic comeuppance, as Vitali steps into the street from the sidewalk, a backward-speeding car driven by a valet strikes him and knocks him to the ground.

“I was waiting for my car,” Vitali recalls. “I was down on the ground. Everybody thought I was dead. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t drive. I never even went to a doctor. For a couple of weeks, it was hard to walk. People told me, you have to sue — you can take money from the insurance. But I never did.”

Mary Preston witnessed the accident’s aftermath and described it as horrifying. “We asked him if he needed an ambulance, but he kept saying, ‘No, no, I’m so silly, stepping into the street like that, I’m so silly.’ The next day he threatened to sue us all.”

Not true, says Vitali. “I said I would sue if they didn’t take back the valet they fired. I called the owner and said, take back this guy, he was such a nice guy. I felt so sorry that he lost his job. She promised she would, but she didn’t.”

Then again, he did strike a pedestrian while speeding backward at 35 miles an hour in somebody else’s car.

 

Scene 3

November 2003. Ashes to Ashes approaches its premiere, and Vitali doesn’t know his lines.

Patten recalls that Vitali was blowing off rehearsals with his speech coach. Vitali said he thought he needed an understudy. Co-star Diana Jellinek even came up with hand signals to cue his next line.

“He wore a Gucci suit, while Diana had a dress that looked like a paper sack,” said Patten. “One of my jobs was to do the program and work on the bios. So I would go to the printer’s and spend hours doing the layout. It was supposed to be his face and Diana’s, like on the poster, then he Photoshopped her face out of the program.”

Patten recounts how at the final dress rehearsal director Di Trevis and Vitali had a falling out over the curtain call.

“Di said, ‘I want to make this [curtain call] simple. Both of you come out, take a bow, then leave together.’ Francesco says, ‘No, the lights are going to go off, and when they come back on, [co-star] Diana is going to bow, then she’ll signal for me, and I’ll have my bow, then I will signal for [the director] Di, for her curtain call.’

“Di said, ‘No, that will be embarrassing.’

“He said, ‘If you don’t do it, I’m not doing the show.’

“Di said, ‘Fine, I quit,’ and walked out. Everybody was thinking maybe we should all quit. But they did the show. They did what he said. The production could not have been saved. It was terrible. It played one night. The other show [Berliner Cabaret — sans Vitali] was a hit, recommended in the L.A. Times. But both shows closed because the actors quit.”

 

Explains managing director Brett Baker, “The night after we opened, Francesco refused to pay the cast and crew based on reasons he thought were adequate and reasons I thought were unacceptable. I was in charge of his budgets. Yes, he had the money. So I went to collect the second half of fees that were owed. The first half had been paid. After we opened, he went into default on payment. Di and I had no choice but to close both shows due to breach of contract. The cast and crew were so emotionally and spiritually demoralized by this man, they were not able to move forward — the narcissism, the ego, the endless conversations about the size of his name on the marquee, his dressing room that looked like an upscale Brentwood apartment while everybody else’s looked like horse stalls, not to mention the professional embarrassment. In all our experiences, we had never experienced anything so horrific. Di flew back to London the next day and has never returned.”

(Di Trevis failed to respond to e-mails from the Weekly.)

Another London-trained director named Aaron Mullen saw the single performance of Ashes to Ashes and somehow found it sufficiently compelling to spend the next two months trying to convince the reluctant, shell-shocked Greek to play Hamlet.

 

Act 3, Scene 1

“I left the theater,” Brett Baker continues. “None of my creative team was interested in going anywhere near the theater while Francesco was there.”

But Chance the contractor, the only man, it seems, who never left the theater, was around to see Aaron Mullen hired: “I saw how Aaron buttered him up, talking about him doing an underground, progressive version of Hamlet. Francesco started boasting about it, and everyone at the theater, at least everyone who was left, said, ‘No, no, don’t do it!’ But he said, ‘It’s going to be perfect. I can learn this.’”

“I live four blocks from the theater,” says actor Peter Deanda. “I’m like semi-retired, and I said to a friend of mine, hey, I’ll read for this thing, so I got the gig [Polonius] and it seemed plausible, and though I knew they had pre-cast Hamlet, I didn’t know who it was. Everybody was already cast. When he finally showed up, I heard the accent, and I went, ‘Oh shit.’”

 

Scene 2

“It was incredible,” explains Chris Pennock, who was cast as Claudius. “I came on board after they had been rehearsing for maybe three weeks. Gertrude [Claudia Stedelin] told me about it. We’re friends from the Actors Studio. I had just done this wonderful production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? So I thought, okay, let’s do Hamlet. So I came in and auditioned for Aaron Mullen, he gave it to me on the spot, and went into rehearsals the next day. That first rehearsal was a disaster, very technical. He’s a British director, so he doesn’t work very organically, so it’s all on the word and on the text, which is a new way of working for me. I do soap operas, so this was all new for me. So I was curious about the guy Hamlet. I was there 14 or 15 rehearsals before he actually showed up — apparently Francesco was locked up in a hotel room learning his lines. I said, ‘Okay.’ I also heard he was a multimillionaire and there were going to be billboards at $30K apiece, and there was going to be HBO George Clooney/Steven Soderbergh filming us. I said, ‘Okay, we are in.’ Then Hamlet shows up, and I can’t understand a word he’s saying.”

 

Scene 3

Polonius continues: “Francesco’s a good guy but totally off the track doing what he did. I don’t know what he was doing on the stage. All the other actors were wonderful, young people and people my age, wonderful people, but we all knew what the problem was — Francesco — and we realized he wasn’t putting his efforts into it. We didn’t learn about the billboards until we were a week or so from opening. I thought, why doesn’t he do the thing in Greek? One day he did, and my God, the man is so loose and wonderful when he speaks in Greek. I’m not putting him down for his mistake; I’m not putting him down for taking giant steps before baby ones. I just don’t know what the hell he was thinking. I could have dropped out. At the same time, I’m semi-retired and I liked the people and the doing of it, so I stuck with it. And it just got worse and worse and worse.”

 

 

Scene 4

Adds Claudius, “I tried to leave six or seven times, but they kept bringing me back in. Claudia would say, ‘Come on, we can do this, and if you quit, I’ll quit.’ You know what it really was that brought me back — it was George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh.”

 

Scene 5

“Along came George Clooney doing this half-reality, half-scripted show,” Polonius recalls. “He rented out the theater on Monday nights. He filmed a rehearsal — I didn’t care for that. They paid everybody $115 extra work. They had one of the stars of that TV show [Jennifer Hall in All My Children] step in for Ophelia, then they came back two or three weeks later, and they wanted everybody to shoot the thing in our costumes. I opted out, I told George Clooney no, I’m not going to do this because of the way it was shot. They had extras playing audience members who were walking out of the theater during the play. When he was shooting Francesco, you could see Francesco was terrible. I knew what Clooney was doing. I said, ‘No, I’m not going to be in this. I don’t want to be on TV as part of this asshole theater group.’”

 

Scene 6

“It’s not a mockery of that production,” insists Grant Heslov, co-executive producer (with George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh) of Section 8 production company. Heslov showed up with Clooney at the Tamarind Theater in mid-February to film an as-yet-untitled series for HBO, scheduled for release in October. (The Tamarind footage awaits its fate at Section 8’s studio.)

“We’d shot a pilot, we already had our actors. One of the storylines was that one of the girls [Hall] gets put into a play [as Ophelia in Hamlet] two weeks before it’s about to open. We didn’t know the Tamarind was actually doing Hamlet at the time. That was a total coincidence. We just chose it for the space.”

(Both Heslov and Clooney have experience in local theater going back more than 20 years.)

“When we stepped into their rehearsal, we weren’t looking for anything in particular. We literally didn’t direct anything. We had cameras there, and we just let it play.”

And what about the audience leaving the play? What about the curtain call with Frank Langella as the only remaining audience member applauding?

“That was about her doing a play with more people on the stage than in the audience, it wasn’t a comment on the production. If anybody is trying to do theater, we say, ‘God bless ‘em.’ It was more about an actor’s experience doing Equity Waiver and trying to make that fit.”

Heslov says they all knew that trouble was brewing.

“You could tell. Two weeks out, it was pretty clear that they had a lot of work ahead of them. But I’ve seen plays two weeks out that you think will be a disaster and they’re brilliant. But when we heard that they kept pushing back the opening, it was clear there were problems.”

Francesco was “very accommodating,” Heslov says. “In the scenes we did, he knew his lines. My take was less on Francesco and more on the director. He was a much bigger personality. If we wrote that character, he wouldn’t be believable. We were flies on the wall. The cameras were on, so I thought maybe [Mullen] was playing for the cameras. It wasn’t until I heard these guys got in a fight later on that we understood he was probably for real.”

 

Scene 7

“The way Aaron started dissing me. It was terrible mental abuse,” says Polonius. “I thought, maybe that’s what they do in England. Not too long into the show, I realized Aaron was a bully. I said, ‘You can’t do that to me.’”

 

Scene 8

March 19, 2004. Hamlet is scheduled to open in three days. After the script-hurling debacle between Vitali and Mullen, Mullen storms out, Vitali postpones the opening, and rehearsals are canceled for one week. The cast joins Polonius at Birds to “try to figure a way to get out of this thing,” Claudius explains.

Claudius drives home to the Inland Empire, resolute that he’d had just about enough of small theater in Los Angeles, and of Hamlet in particular.

 

Scene 9

On March 20, Vitali calls for a cast vote at the theater to determine whether the show should go on, whether Mullen should be allowed to return.

 

“I wanted Aaron to return on the condition that he apologize to all of the actors,” Vitali says.

“They did have this meeting, but I wasn’t there,” says Claudius. “I missed it on purpose. I was at a spa in Desert Hot Springs. Ophelia kept calling me every hour, but I never called back. They had the vote without me.”

They cast votes to keep doing the show, replacing Mullen with Nick Cagle (Horatio), supervised by Deanda.

Meanwhile, Mullen, who says the election was rigged, is quietly lobbying actors to boycott rehearsals until his own artistic and financial conditions are met. It doesn’t take long for the actors to reverse their own vote and resume following their leader, bully or not.

“There was never really a Francesco camp,” Claudius explains. “Most of the rage was directed at Francesco because he never knew his lines and he made the rest of us look pretty ridiculous. The only guy who got out was Laertes. He quit after the fight. He had a TV pilot, so he had a job to go to.”

 

Scene 10

Late March to early April. As part of his conditions to resume directing, Mullen gets Vitali to agree to put up Claudius in a hotel. At first, Claudius refuses to return Mullen’s calls, until Mullen leaves a message with Vitali’s offer.

“I was so exhausted because I live in Idyllwild. I have a wife and kid. They offered to put me up in some millionaire hotel. It turned out to be a motel near Hollywood and La Brea with these strange fumes. I was choking in there, so I open the window, and staring back at me is a billboard of Francesco’s Hamlet

Meanwhile, Kendall is concerned that Vitali appears to have stopped paying the theater’s operating costs. Kendall magnanimously pays the theater’s DWP bill himself. As he’s writing the check, he gets a call from a friend stuck on the 405 freeway who says there’s a bus right next to her with a poster of Vitali’s Hamlet plastered on the side. “Things must be going well over there,” she says.

Scene 11

March 27. After the first of two opening-night postponements, Vitali and Mullen meet outside the theater for the first post-fight rehearsal. Mullen agrees to reduce his $10,000 “grievance” demand to $5,000, payable in two installments. The remaining nine conditions (that Vitali learn his lines, hire a voice coach, etc.) remain the same. Inside the theater, Vitali and Mullen sign a contract in front of witnesses — including Vitali’s younger brother Michael, who had flown in from London to support his sibling. Vitali writes Mullen a check for $2,500 post-dated one week. Rehearsals resume.

Says Mullen, “The conversation I had with him in the last week was to please let the understudy [Nick Cagle] open the play, and take some time to learn your lines.”

 

Scene 12

April 9, Good Friday. For the third time in almost two weeks, Hamlet is scheduled to open. Writes Mullen: “Afternoon dress run. Horrible. Staggering and pox-ridden. Halfway through Act II, the Dane whispers, ‘I must go, Aaarone.’ He duly disappears from the stage, summoned to Beverly Hills for personal jewelry duty. The understudy steps in to finish the [run-through]. The play flies. A different show. I can actually hear it.”

Vitali pays Mullen the second and final $2,500 installment of his grievance pay with a check, post-dated two weeks. When Mullen goes to cash it two weeks later, it bounces.

Scene 13

April 9, Good Friday. Hamlet opens. Writes Mullen: “The theater is filled with family, friends and freaks. I’m sipping vodka and humming, ‘Brush up your Shakespeare.’ Ignoring the 8 p.m. curtain, the Dane has an extremely important 11th-hour meeting with his hairdresser and makeup artist. At 8:20 p.m., he is relaxing in his dressing gown, when I suggest he might like to mosey on over to the stage, as the house is heaving. ‘I like you because you’re a Pisces, Aaarone,’ he tells me.

“‘Break a leg, Franko.’”

Hamlet’s great soliloquies are indecipherable, while the supporting players perform with all the confidence and enthusiasm of being in a police lineup.

“I don’t know what happened, I just went completely blank,” says Claudius. “I started improvising in iambic pentameter. I think the Times caught it, but I was lucky they didn’t mention me by name.”

Meanwhile, Polonius says he came out too early on an entrance only because Vitali had forgotten his lines.

“Polonius is supposed to have 10 entrances and nine exits [because he dies], but after Aaron had hacked the play so horribly because of Francesco, it was hard to keep track.”

 

 

Scene 14

April 9, Good Friday. After the show, Vitali invites cast and crew to celebrate the opening at his home.

“It was at the back end of Bel Air,” Claudius recalls. “It could be in any Valley street, but it’s in Bel Air. Maybe three or four bedrooms, a comfortable house, but it’s not a mansion.”

“I met his family,” says Vitali’s publicist, Eileen Koch. “They’re extremely charming, generous people, nice people. His mom and his brother, they all came over here for the opening, from London, from Greece. They were very nice, warm people.”

“They invited everybody, the entire cast and crew, but only three of us showed up,” Polonius adds.

Scene 15

Tuesday, April 13. Vitali fires the running crew, thereby closing the show, but neglects to tell Mullen or the cast, who gather at the Tamarind for a 2 p.m. brush-up rehearsal. They discover the theater closed, and the locks changed.

 

Scene 16

Thursday, April 15. The first review appears, a scathing notice in the L.A. Weekly that references the billboards and the mangling of Shakespeare by Vitali.

 

Scene 17

Friday, April 16. The second and final review appears, a scathing notice in the L.A. Times that references the billboards and the mangling of Shakespeare by Vitali.

 

Scene 18

Late April. Alan and Kendall take back full possession of their theater due to breach of contract. A notice is posted on the theater door: “Francesco Vitali is no longer associated with the Tamarind Actor’s Studio.”

 

Epilogue

“It was a big nightmare. I don’t want to go through this ever again,” Francesco Vitali reflects.

“We had to return the cost of 1,100 tickets to people who paid in advance. I went into a big depression. At first, I was driving in Orange County. I didn’t even know where I was going.

“Even with these guys [Alan and Kendall], we had some issues, because they broke our agreement, even in the end they said to me, whatever you want, please keep the theater, don’t give up. I felt it was my time to walk out of there. Since April 11, I haven’t been in the area. I haven’t even been to pick up my personal belongings. I don’t have the strength to go in again.

“But I’m not bitter. I’m so proud that I’m here. This country is giving me lessons and opportunities and keeping me alive. My producers are still behind me. And my friends. Nice American friends.”

Mullen says he’s mainly upset for the talented actors who invested so much time and commitment into a project that went nowhere. He says he pleaded with Vitali to allow the understudy to do the role, even after the reviews, just to keep the production alive. “But his ego was always surpassing his business sense,” Mullen laments.

Alan and Kendall would like to put a hideous year behind them, and want the city to know that Tamarind Theater is open and ready for business.

Perhaps the best news of all is that Vitali will continue to do live theater. He says he’s currently in Greece directing a concert tour of pop star Keti Garbi, whom Vitali describes as “something like Madonna.” Nor is Vitali giving up on America.

“I’m doing a national tour with a new play, a musical, and we’re going to go all over the country,” he says. “It’s an Equity production with the same investors, they’re big supporters. It’s called Dreams.”


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