BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
St. Petersburg Shakespeare Company doesn't mess around. Its premiere production is Hamlet.
Artistic director Richard Miller explains why he decided to tackle Shakespeare's most famous play right out of the gate.
"I felt like the nature of what we're doing is a little bit ambitious, given that there's no built-in reason for people to get behind us,'' Miller said last week before a rehearsal. "So I felt like the best way to take advantage of that was to do the play that we shouldn't do.''
There are other Shakespeare plays that might be more manageable for a fledgling, amateur company. These include, say, The Taming of the Shrew or A Midsummer Night's Dream.
"Everybody is going to ask, 'Why are you doing Hamlet? Why not do an easier one?' , '' Miller acknowledged. "Well, this is the best one. I figure if you're going to be a Shakespeare company, if you're going to start one from scratch, you might as well start with the play that everybody knows, that everybody has seen and done, and we'll do it our way. Hopefully, the audacity of that will carry the day.''
Miller, 35, a high school and middle school English and drama teacher, got the idea to form the company when he saw one of American Stage's musicals on the St. Petersburg waterfront and read in the program that it had performed Shakespeare in the park for many years. He thinks the bay area should have a Shakespeare company, modeled on those in Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco, Orlando and other metropolitan areas.
"Our long-term goal is to do Shakespeare in the park, but that is a logistical nightmare,'' Miller said. Hamlet, which opens tonight, is being performed at Eckerd College's Bininger Theatre. The company may look around for other venues for future productions.
St. Petersburg Shakespeare is starting out small, with a budget of only about $4,000 for its first production, which includes music by the Tampa band It Rhymes with Orange. None of the 18-member cast is being paid, and a few in the ensemble have never been onstage, while some are experienced actors, such as Michael DuMouchel, who plays Hamlet's uncle Claudius.
Miller himself has a limited Shakespearean resume. He has played a few roles, such as Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night and Buckingham in Richard III. He directed a school production of Hamlet in Dallas.
Benjamin Boucvalt, 27, a student at the FSU/Asolo Acting Conservatory in Sarasota, has the title role in the play. "Just to have the chance to play Hamlet is a great opportunity, because it's a character I hope to have a relationship with throughout my career,'' he said. "To have an experience like this after my first year in conservatory, to really sink my teeth in the role, is amazing.''
Boucvalt doesn't mind the volunteer quality of the production. "It's an environment where everybody loves what they're doing,'' he said. "Because if you're not getting paid, why else would you be here?''
Hamlet has been in rehearsal since May, with the cast typically working from 7 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, plus a few Sundays. The company has the use of a vacant office building in Treasure Island, with a great view of Boca Ciega Bay from its second-floor space.
"I love coming to rehearsal,'' Miller said. "My favorite days have been Sundays because we often have a production meeting, a fight call and then a run-through, so I'm here for seven hours, just living Hamlet. It's fantastic.''
Hamlet, uncut, runs about four hours, and Miller spent a lot of time editing it down to run about 2 1/2 hours, plus an intermission. He said he learned something new every time he went through the play.
"Hamlet is quite possibly the smartest character ever written, and yet he's not quite smart enough to figure himself out,'' Miller said. "So there's always some nuance to what he's saying that I didn't pick up the last time I read it. It's a lifelong journey to discover who you really are and what your destiny is. Despite his brilliance, Hamlet is unable to figure that out until the end of the play.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.