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Be it fair or foul, will fest take place at all?

Don't misunderstand me. I'm crazy about Shakespeare. No one on the planet could be more excited than I am at the prospect of having real Shakespeare performed live and in costume within driving distance, and I'm the kind who thinks "Shakespeare driving distance" is Stratford, Ontario, to which I once drove so I could see the Bard's works.

So all this asking around I'm doing about the New Port Richey Shakespeare Festival set for Oct. 28-31 isn't because I'm trying to scuttle the thing; it's because I want to make sure that people see a Shakespeare play if they drive forever coming here to see a Shakespeare play.

My questions started in March when I browsed the New Port Richey Community Cooperative's site on the Internet and found this notice: "Shakespearean and Elizabethan actors from all over the country will converge on New Port Richey during the weekend of October 28-31," it said (and was still saying as late as Friday). "This festival will showcase the many different aspects of the Elizabethan era, including a jousting tournament, castle building, human chess matches, and of course Theater in the Park. This event will also feature a black-tie fund raising event at the Richey Suncoast Theater (sic) to benefit historic preservation of the theater and Downtown New Port Richey."

Wow! That's big stuff. Would Kenneth Branagh of Henry V fame or Joseph Fiennes of Shakespeare in Love drop by? Maybe some of the Redgrave family?

Uh, not quite.

In late April, a press release arrived on my desk from the cooperative announcing local auditions for Macbeth and Taming of the Shrew in early May. "Rehearsals will begin at the end of June, and a complete rehearsal/performance schedule will be available at the auditions," the release said.

Now it's August, and as far as I can find out, the Shakespeare Festival is still pretty much at ground zero. Sure, some contacts have been made with a costumer for the play (it's down to one, Taming), the jousters, some entertainers and some food vendors, but, so far, few have actually signed on the dotted line, and critical details are still up in the air.

I thought about waiting around to see how it all turns out when the October 28 opening night rolls around, but the questions (and answers) can't wait until then because the sponsor of the event, the New Port Richey Community Cooperative, is going before the City Council Tuesday night to ask for $50,000 of city taxpayer money, and some of that money may end up being spent on the Shakespeare Festival.

Before that happens, someone . . . anyone . . . needs to answer some very basic questions. Like: Who is doing what? Who is going to pay for it? Where is the money coming from?

Right now, the cooperative's involvement is "very limited," according to Matthew Potter, the co-op's board president. "All we're doing is ticket sales for the gala and buying some champagne."

The $50-a-ticket gala is dinner at a New Port Richey restaurant and a performance of Taming of the Shrew at Richey Suncoast Theatre. The co-op and the theater will split the profits, Potter said. The co-op's only other connection is to reserve Frances Avenue Park for the festival itself and contract with a company called New Renaissance Productions Inc. to do the rest.

Perhaps most important, New Renaissance will pay for everything, and neither the cooperative nor the city will be out a single cent, Potter said.

New Renaissance, by the way, is Tom Marsh and Joe Gioielli, the same people who in July 1995 announced plans for a Renaissance Fair in Sims Park, including Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and The Taming of the Shrew, an event that, alas, never happened.

And Marsh is the same person who is acting as interim director of the co-op since the departure of former director Charlie Hobbs last month.

Marsh says that he has pulled out of New Renaissance to avoid an appearance of conflict of interest, but on Friday, he went to St. Augustine to meet with the costumer for the play, which looks very similar to a duty of the production company he said he just left.

Oh, well.

Strangely, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary, Marsh says that the entire Shakespeare Festival is right on track. "It's already together," he said Wednesday. "It's a go."

What about a permit to use the park?

Marsh: "Yes, we've been fully approved by the city."

City Manager Gerald Seeber: "He applied for permits, but they changed the site plan. He has not received any permit."

What about New Renaissance's contract with the cooperative?

Marsh: "All done."

Potter: "The board never voted on or signed the contract."

What about the contract with the jousters?

Marsh: "I have signed contracts."

Kelly Bailey of War Horse Productions, the jousting company: "We have talked with Tom and it's being put together even as we speak. We are negotiating. It hasn't been finalized, no."

Have the jousters seen the available area at Francis Avenue Park?

Marsh: "I'm going to meet with them at Francis Avenue Park at the end of August so we can map out space for the track."

Bailey: "We need a level space 220 feet by at least 50 feet."

Frank South, city parks superintendent: "That open space is about 75 feet deep and no more than 150 or 175 feet long, at the most, and it pitches off in two different directions with a house on one end and a deep ditch on the other."

Who is going to pay for all this?

Marsh: "We'll get sponsors. We have agreements with some small sponsors, but we don't have checks. They aren't major sponsors in terms of financing." He declined to say who they are. "I'll work on that next week."

Who are the entertainers? The food sellers?

Marsh: (Long pause) "It's not coming up on the computer."

Aren't there some signed contracts somewhere?

Marsh: "Queens Apples from Starke, Portable Rock Climbing from Georgia."

Marsh has told Potter to expect 20,000 people for this festival.

Where are they going to park? There is room for a few hundred at a nearby school and perhaps a nearby lodge building, but the school will be in session the first two days of the festival, and there aren't enough spaces for several thousand vehicles a day on the weekend.

Where are the 20,000 people going to use the restroom? The three-stall comfort stations at the park would create some long and desperate lines.

Who is going to pay for security and traffic control?

Who is going to pay for cleaning up the flotsam and jetsam left by 20,000 people?

The cooperative is depending on a new, untried company with, at most, two employees to put everything together and find sponsors to pay for it within the next three short months. The city is depending on the cooperative to see that everything comes together.

A Shakespeare Festival can work; Shakespeare is having his own little renaissance right now, and people are flocking to see his plays. The play can be cobbled together in a matter of weeks at relatively little cost, so that's not the big worry.

It's the rest of the festival where costs and obligations could skyrocket and participants could be looking to the city for payment, never mind their signed contracts. Besides, a puny festival could make the city look silly and seriously affect the credibility of future events.

New Port Richey just plunked down nearly $300,000 for a tiny, out-of-the-way pocket park behind the Moose Lodge because council members failed to ask all the questions they should have asked at the start and didn't get concrete bids for all the construction up front. That ill-advised "pay-as-you-go" project forced them to overpay in order to get the thing finished.

Let's hope that when the co-op asks for $50,000, the City Council gets some answers.