Hamlet hatred plays out on stage

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Chris Kulmann, left, and Val Vitalo rehearse a scene from the Phoenix Stage Company’s latest production, ‘I Hate Hamlet.’ Kulmann is playing the character of John Barrymore, while Vitalo is portraying the character Lillian Troy. ‘I Hate Hamlet’ is currently playing at the theater on Rubber Avenue. PHOTO CONTRIBUTED
NAUGATUCK – The fledgling Phoenix Stage Company may still be borrowing seats from its friends, but that’s not stopping it from spreading its wings with its fifth show in as many months.

Opening night for the company’s latest production, “I Hate Hamlet,” was last Friday, and the play will be running at the Rubber Avenue theater this weekend and next weekend.

It’s a play that wasn’t supposed to open at all.

The Pheonix planned to open “Death Trap,” but after casting the show, the producers pulled the rights.

It can happen to any theatre within a target distance of New York City, according to Ed Bassett, one of three partners in the Phoenix Stage Company.

When producers of a show decide to take it to Broadway, they take the rights away from any contracts that are out there, Bassett said, even for a tiny, 70-seat theatre like the Phoenix.

With the cast for “Death Trap” already set, the Phoenix searched for another play that could make use of the same talent.

They found it in “I Hate Hamlet,” a story of a young TV actor named Andrew, whose series is canceled, and he finds himself instead in the unwanted roll of Hamlet in Shakespeare in the Park.

After moving into an apartment once owned by famous actor John Barrymore, the protagonist’s real estate agent convinces him to do a séance to bring back the dead actor’s ghost. The erstwhile actor, now better known as the grandfather of Drew Barrymore, appears to Andrew and tutors him in his new roll.

Bassett described the script as, comedic, and fast-paced, with its share of touching moments.

“It’s really very funny. It’s a very, very good show,” said Bassett.

Chris Kulmann, who plays John Barrymore, lucked out when “Death Trap” was canceled. He was the one extra cast member need for “I Hate Hamlet” not cast in “Death Trap”.

This will be his first performance since graduating from Central Connecticut State University two years ago.

“This is my chance of coming back strong if I can,” Kulmann said.

He has been directing plays at Naugatuck High School, his alma mater, for three years. Some of his students said they would come to see his performance.

“I hope they do [come] and I hope they catch me on any mistakes I make. It will be proof I taught them well,” Kulmann said.

He said he enjoyed working with a very strong cast with a lot of dedicated actors in a family-like environment.

Kulmann describes Barrymore as a great classical actor, but with a dark personal life filled with women and booze.

“He is a scallywag,” Kulmann said.

Although the Pheonix chose the script out of necessity, it works well for the cast, Bassett said.

They were disappointed at first, but they’ve all grown to love the show, Bassett said.

“We’re just thankful that we weren’t a week from opening when they pulled the show,” he said.

Although the theatre can re-apply for the rights to “Death Trap,” the 2011 season is already set with eight productions, Bassett said.

Upcoming performances include a comedy night with Dave Riley on Feb. 19 and “Love, Sex, and the IRS,” a fast-paced comedy opening in March. The theatre’s first two musicals – “The Last Five Years” and “Zombie Prom”-are also expected to grace the stage during the 2011 season.

As a small, up-start theatre, the Pheonix has to work hard to make ends meet.

“It seems like we’re constantly going,” Bassett said.

Although the theatre has been able to pay royalties and rent, they always have to come up with ways to conserve, he said.

The theatre’s partners try to choose shows that can use similar sets so they can be reused and they have reduced box office hours so someone doesn’t have to be there all the time.

“We’re watching our pennies and being very careful with what we spend,” Bassett said.

The theatre is waiting to get their 501-C3 non-profit designation so they won’t have to pay taxes on tickets and concessions, as the do now. Once they get their non-profit number, they will be able to apply for grants to help offset some of their costs.

“We really have to pay attention to the budget,” Bassett said. “So far, we’re okay … We’re not really in the red,” he said.

People who make donations now will be able to write it off on their taxes as soon as the theatre gets their number, Bassett said.

“It’s just a waiting game,” he said.

As the company grows, the theatre is building a nice base of regular audience members and season subscribers, Bassett said.

“People are saying how much they enjoy it, how much they love that we’re here,” he said.

In December, the Pheonix held a one-weekend performance of “One Night with Fanny Bright” to raise money to the company to purchase their own chairs. Although the show was sold out Saturday and Sunday, the Friday night performance got snowed out. The show went one, despite the snow, but only eight people showed up to see it.

“We were just shy of our goal,” Bassett said.

If all goes well, the theatre will be able to purchase the seats after “I Hate Hamlet.”

If you go:
Feb. 4, 5, 11 & 12, 2011 at 8:00 p.m.
Feb. 6 & 13, 2011 at 2:00 p.m.
Phoenix Stage Company
686 Rubber Avenue, Naugatuck, CT 06770

Box Office Hours:
Wednesday thru Saturday 1:00-6:00pm
(203) 632-8546

Purchase tickets online at:
http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/141446