Onyx Theatre Resurrects Itself as a Laugh Factory

Producing director Troy Heard is building ways to improve Onyx Theatre. | Photo by Jason Ogulnik

Producing director Troy Heard is building ways to improve Onyx Theatre. | Photo by Jason Ogulnik

Using onstage comedy to quell off-stage drama? How very odd, and very Onyx-y of them.

Under the theory that you can’t kill it with a stick but you can save it with shtick, the Onyx Theatre—that stubborn survivalist of the Las Vegas theater universe wedged in the funky (and skunk-y) Commercial Center behind a fetish-wear shop—backpedaled from the abyss last month by literally laughing in the face of death.

Amid reports of its rumored imminent closure, the venue that often preferred to zig while the majority zagged—you went elsewhere for Guys and Dolls; you went there for Naked Boys Singing!—is attempting to remake itself as a “comedy hub,” as new producing director Troy Heard characterizes it.

“We’d like to become a new Second City,” says Heard, not bothering with merely modest aspirations. “Vegas has Las Vegas Little Theatre and Signature [Productions] and Cockroach [Theatre] and all these theater companies, but what it doesn’t have is a dedicated improv theater. There is a call for it because there’s so much of it in this city. When the Onyx came up—bam—I thought it would be a great match.”

Once it was a showcase for everything comic to tragic that you could variously label offbeat, gay-friendly, even outrageous—after all, it opened in late-2005 with a production of The Vampire, the Virgin & the Very Horny Night—and had recently tipped more mainstream.

Now, under Heard and minus the Rack (the since-vacated sex shop), the Onyx has cleared the decks of drama—no more One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Hamlet (both fabulous productions, by the way). Instead, it has begun a guffaw-only rollout of weekly improv shows and funny-bone plays from contemporary to musical comedies to Shakespeare. Other plans include space for comedy classes (where the cat o’ nine tails, restraints and genital entrapment devices were once displayed) and even a long-form improv soap opera.

Natalie Shipman and Ross Horvitz at Joke Kune Do. | Photo by Jason Ogulnik

Natalie Shipman and Ross Horvitz at Joke Kune Do. | Photo by Jason Ogulnik

Though it long had a comedy presence via improv nights, stand-up, open-mic nights and one-person shows sprinkled through its schedule—many of them one-offs or weekend stop-offs—it’s now betting the house money on it. Largely, its vision is inspired by the model of Dad’s Garage Theatre, the comedy kingdom in Atlanta.

“It’s not as unbelievable a change as people might see it,” says Paul Mattingly, one half of the local live-show and podcasting duo of Matt and Mattingly. Drafted by Heard, Mattingly created the recently debuted Joke Kune Do, a weekly Saturday night competition between two teams of improvisers, with winners determined by audience cheers/jeers.

“Second City did shows [at the Onyx] near the end of its  [Vegas] run; it’s where we had our Monday night shows,” says Mattingly, who will also be an instructor for the comedy classes. “If things continue on this track, we can make this a home base and nurturing ground for comedy in Vegas—from Vegas.”

Rounding out this ongoing reboot: The GET, a weekly Friday night swirl of sketch comedy, improv and stand-up; and the weekly Thursday entry, Don’t Quit Your Day Job, created by Second City grads Derek and Natalie Shipman, in which guests are interviewed about their bizarre employment experiences, sparking improvisational scenes. Among scheduled guests are plus-size porn actress Kelly Shibari, ex-Jubilee! showgirl Kady Kay and comedy-magician Murray SawChuck.

The comedy competitors of Joke Kune Do at Onyx Theatre. Photo by Jason Ogulnik

The comedy competitors of Joke Kune Do at Onyx Theatre. | Photo by Jason Ogulnik

Last week saw playwright John Patrick Shanley’s downright nasty comedy Four Dogs and a Bone conclude its run, as well as the one-night Dr. Sexpot’s Erotic Circus, the underground variety show that pretty much defies description. Coming up starting February 13 and running through March 7 is the bonkers comedy Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda by the Midnight Fomato Society (collaborating with Off-Strip Productions, the Onyx’s in-house production arm), in which the audience is encouraged to pelt the cast with foam tomatoes.

In the bullpen are the comically macabre Welcome, Boils and Ghouls! (starting Feb. 19) and the farcical The Food Chain (beginning March 19).

All this yuk-it-up stuff rose out of business Sturm und Drang when the relationship between then-Onyx co-owners Michael Morse and Randy Lange fractured. “It was a split among the owners, and I’ve tried not to be privy to it,” Heard says about the tension that led then-artistic director Brandon Burk to resign in December.

“I learned a lot there, but it sucked the joy out of what we do,” Burk says. “We don’t make a lot of money doing it, so there has to be something else to it. It was back and forth on whether the Onyx would close; every day it seemed the story was changing. It was tough because I was talking to these [performing] companies. Sin City Opera was doing a show there in February and another in May, and these guys are in rehearsal. What am I supposed to tell them?”

After Burk parachuted out, and with the storm being calmed by Lange and Tom Conroy, CFO of the company that owns both the Onyx and the Rack, Heard came aboard January 1.

“It just fell into my lap,” says the crazy-busy Heard, who agreed to assume the captainship despite also running his own Table 8 Productions. Meanwhile, he was vainly trying to rescue the doomed Pawn Shop Live! at the Golden Nugget and the Riviera (a complicated backstage mess that ensnared him), as well as producing and co-directing Joni & Gina’s Wedding at the Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel.

“Did I have reservations? I did, because it’s always been kind of a financial roller coaster,” says Heard, who has applied for a license to serve beer and wine, initiating another revenue stream. “The directive I was given: Break even. But having been one of the most active producers at the Onyx through Table 8, I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t, and where that place can go.”

Under the stewardship of Burk, the Onyx had toned down the tumult. Creative leaders before him had reigned over more theatrically gonzo periods, including John Beane (who helmed the rebel Insurgo Theater Movement) and Sirc Michaels (whose later, bloody-funny Evil Dead the Musical at Planet Hollywood has catapulted him from community theater to the Strip).

Top-notch productions booked by Burk included the Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive, Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, Neil Simon’s California Suite and a widely lauded production of Sweeney Todd, directed by Burk.

Yet Burk says the man-at-the-top job has been handed to the right man. “I’m really happy about Troy being there,” Burk says. “He knows how to do this.

“He’s been producing show on top of show for a long time. I’m just a dumb actor. I stepped into that role having no idea what I was doing; I just love theater. Troy will bring in more but smaller projects. And he’ll bring in a different demographic. Where I was going after a general theater audience, Troy is heading directly toward comedy. That makes it easier to market. He’s very smart in that regard.”

Paul Mattingly with his slightly arbitrary scoring system. | Photo by Jason Ogulnik

Paul Mattingly with his slightly arbitrary scoring system. | Photo by Jason Ogulnik

Still, Heard acknowledges that “the Onyx has its challenges.” One of those has been dealt with since the Rack—which, by the way, stood for “Responsible and Consensual Kink”—vamoosed from the premises.

“I told Troy I was jealous,” Burk says. “To be able to run that building without the store attached is really a dream.”

On one hand, the Rack spiced the Onyx experience with an intriguing weirdness. Nowhere else—certainly not at Las Vegas Little Theatre or UNLV—could you examine ball gags on your way into The Insect Play, browse handcuffs before Cannibal! The Musical or admire strap-ons the night you see 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche.

On the other …

“For a long time, I viewed it as a plus because it sort of weeds out people who aren’t serious about coming to check out edgy theater. But you have to balance that with making it a friendly place everyone can feel comfortable with,” Mattingly says.

“When we did shows there, before they changed the structure, there was a time you walked through all of it. So ‘dildo’ became every [improvisational] suggestion. You walk through that to a comedy show, all you get is ‘dildos.’ We’ll still get plenty of ‘dildos’ without it being right there in our faces.”

That still leaves … the rest of the neighborhood. Never the most family-friendly ’hood, the center surrounds the Onyx with sex outlets including the Green Door and Fantasy swingers clubs, as well as the gay-oriented Hawks Gym and Entourage Vegas Bath House.

“As an audience member, it’s a pretty large commitment to come to the Commercial Center—it’s not like you’re driving to Downtown Summerlin and it’s chichi and nice,” Heard acknowledges. “There’s an edge to it. And the narrative of the Onyx has always been that it was an offshoot of the Rack, with gay-friendly plays. But as people such as John Beane and Sirc Michaels and Brandon [Burk] changed the mission of the theater, it expanded the audience base.”

Conversely, comedy complements the area’s vibe better. “It’s less of a hindrance for what Troy is doing,” Burk says. “The demographic for a play like Four Dogs and a Bone is different from people who wouldn’t come in to see Cabaret and more mainstream things because of the neighborhood. Troy’s edge is more appropriate for the area and the space.”

Come this fall, the Onyx will mark 10 years—and a raucous history of staff turnover, creative U-turns and mission makeovers—in Las Vegas. As Heard attests: “The Onyx is a testament to moxie.”

Enough, in fact, to laugh—evenings, matinees, late nights; parking is easy, come on down—in the face of death.

Onyx Theatre

The Commercial Center District, 953 E. Sahara Ave., Suite 16-B, 702-732-7225, OnyxTheatre.com.

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