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Bard to the bone: David McKee’s production diary takes us behind the scenes of an intense, stripped-down version of “Hamlet”

<p>Troy Heard, director of &#8220;Hamlet,&#8221; now playing at Onyx Theater. PHOTO: MICHAEL HERB</p>

Troy Heard, director of “Hamlet,” now playing at Onyx Theater. PHOTO: MICHAEL HERB

Last August, CityLife drama critic David McKee traded in his aisle seat for the role of Polonius in a production of Hamlet directed by Troy Heard, now running at Onyx Theatre. What follows is his diary of the halting steps of someone who hadn’t acted in 28 years, attempting the grandest tragedy of the most famous playwright ever. No pressure.

Aug. 5, Darkest Summerlin

We’re so far out on the fringes of the valley there ought to be more coyotes than people. We convene in a rough, unfinished room in the otherwise palatial home of Kim Glover (Queen Gertrude/Osric) and her husband. Kim’s just coming off a run as the foulmouthed Lin in The Great American Trailer Park Musical. Having been cast late the night before, I am introduced to the rest of what I will come to call “The Magnificent Seven”: Geo Nikols (Hamlet), Ronn Williams (Claudius and the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father), Brandon McClenahan (Laertes/Guildenstern), Ashley Patrice Bufkin (Ophelia/Rosencrantz) and Mick Axelrod (Horatio/The Player). I’ll be doubling as the Gravedigger. Considering that I reviewed most of them — and roasted some — they are surprisingly welcoming to this interloper from the dark side.

Why am I here? Two words: Troy Heard. His productions — including Hellcab, Theodora She-Bitch of Byzantium, Neighborhood III: Requisition of Doom and the sublime, unexpectedly moving Great American Trailer Park Musical — have been a constant source of inspiration. He consistently takes community theater to undreamt-of heights.

When Hamlet was still an Insurgo project, I wouldn’t have had a shot. But Insurgo’s sudden — if not unexpected — demise, and the excitement engendered by Troy’s concept, generated so much momentum that he’s set up independent shop at Onyx Theatre. As soon as I read Troy’s severe redaction of the script, I knew I had to be part of it: He describes Polonius as “the ultimate manager,” a man in his 50s who masks a sense of failure with cutting wit. As I repeatedly importuned Troy, “This isn’t a character — it’s ME. Now!” It’s to be a modern-dress production, set against the long Onyx mirror, done in the style of classic horror films. Many stage directions and much more text will bite the dust, but our mission statement will remain, “It’s not Shakespeare — it’s HBO.” (Well, that and “Let’s fuck shit up.”)

Aug. 12, Summerlin

It’s been a week since our first reading and we’re blocking scenes at la maison Glover. The house, acquired from a bank, is so spacious and apt that everyone agrees we really ought to do Hamlet here, as a “happening” wherein the audience follows us up staircases and through spacious bedrooms. We also have some Japanese guests: a balletic TV crew covering 32-year-old playwright Yukiko Motoya, who is in turn covering theater in Vegas. Troy has caught her eye because he’s made the transition from small, dark “indie” productions like Will Eno’s Thom Pain to mainstream fare like Trailer Park and back again. Hair and makeup minions hover around her like attendant hummingbirds.

Aug. 14, Blackbird Studios

Blocking rehearsals have relocated to this tight, airless space in the Arts District. It’s so humid that I’m knackered an hour into the proceedings. Brandon has taken ill, but we manage to run almost all of Acts I/II, and block the remainder of Act III.) A week of one-on-one rehearsals with Troy has unleashed Geo’s inner Hamlet. His closet scene with Kim is blood-curdlingly intense, and his confrontation with Ronn’s Ghost looks to be a highlight of our show. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been reconceived as the LGBT contingent from Wittenberg U., a concept that Ashley and Brandon fall upon with glee.

Afterward, Troy takes us aside and films us one-on-one about why we are doing Hamlet and what makes this production special. I babble something about Shakespeare upending Tolstoy’s observation that each unhappy family is different. Ronn, however, has the money quote: “Shakespeare’s really deep, baby.” Indeed. New layers of subtext reveal themselves on a near-daily basis.

Aug. 18-19, Onyx Theatre

Tiptoeing our way past standing sets for Troy’s Summer Camp! The Musical, we start to take the measure of our eventual home. Since a long table is the centerpiece of the staging, Mick must double as Horatio and scene-shifter, converting the royal dining room into a rampart, a bedchamber, even a grave. For my part, I’m still “knocking off the rust,” as Troy puts it. His most frequent directive: “Stop beating up on yourself.” However, coming out of self-imposed retirement is no small task.

Helpfully, Geo is an excellent improviser. Our scenes together vary from day to day but we’re always “in” the same scene: He plays to what I give him and vice versa. Thirty years ago, it might have annoyed me but today I revel in my newfound flexibility. My favorite part of the show becomes our Gravedigger/Hamlet scene, which is honed into a reliable comedy act. Even when things go wrong, it always “plays.” While Troy is always very much in charge, his tendency is to let the actors experiment, rein them in when necessary and capitalize upon whatever insights we bring.

My wife, Jennifer, and I have been scouring thrift stores to assemble my costume: a black business suit, white shirt, Italian shoes, briefcase. A red tie and a walking stick from my wardrobe supply the only splashes of color. Despite our minimalist staging, much prop-handling is involved. I rehearse it lovingly. You want to make those moves look like second nature. It’s why Steve McQueen would practice something as simple as getting out of a car.

Aug. 25-26, Onyx

We’re on the stage and, mercifully, we have air-conditioning. Backstage entrances are barricaded by Summer Camp! set pieces, necessitating desperate improvisation. However, a “Camp Tigglebitties” cardboard conifer makes a handy place of concealment when Hamlet stabs me. Pity poor Geo, who must “lug the guts” — 220 pounds of McKee — offstage. Since we are wedged into a 95-minute time slot before Onyx’s 10 p.m. show, Troy has to cut, trim and then cut more. I lose a beloved speech but Ronn suffers a truly grievous blow: Claudius’ entire prayer scene is excised. But Geo’s arc as Hamlet has come into focus: not a violent man but one driven to violence under sore emotional strain.

The show is gaining velocity, save for Sunday’s Act IV run-through, which is a train wreck. That’s also the day we get Sandy Stein’s awe-inspiring score and sound effects, which amp our onstage adrenaline exponentially. Hamlet and Laertes conduct an intense death grapple amid Ennio Morricone-like guitar chords. “Bet you didn’t know you were going to be in a Sergio Leone movie,” I tell Brandon and Geo when they finish. Troy wants the Gravedigger to croon a line. It happens to lie perfectly on “Strangers in the Night.” Sinatra and Shakespeare! Could it get any better?

Aug. 27, Blackbird Studio

Nothing makes you appreciate Onyx like being back in the Blackbird sweatbox. We’re rehearsing around a mini version of our set, making the action absurdly claustrophobic. The Polonius-Ophelia scenes — Ashley, brilliant as always — get careful scrutiny and everything goes well until midway in Act IV, when the humidity gets the better of us. We end more as farce than tragedy. I wear my prop eyeglasses for the first time: perfect … except when I consult my script. That happens but rarely now, as I’ve finally mastered (well, reached a Mexican standoff with) the text.

Aug. 28, No rehearsal

Reflecting on our progress so far — and the effect of the extra cuts — I see Hamlet evolving (devolving?) into a triangle between three alpha males: Hamlet, Claudius and Laertes, each clawing for dominance. Later, I will describe it to Troy as a perverse homoerotic triangle.

Aug. 29, Blackbird

During this run-through the emotional violence of two of Ophelia’s scenes, including “Get thee to a nunnery,” is severely escalated. Several props bite the dust. I belatedly realize that my longest stretch of stage time is when I’m a corpse.

Aug. 30, Blackbird

Last rehearsal before a three-day hiatus. Kim, having “frozen” her performance too early, has rethought it and brings a stronger, haughtier take that stiffens Gertrude’s spine. During notes, Troy says I lack confidence and gives me a withering, worried look that says, Dude, you’re fucking up my show! If I didn’t want for confidence previously, I do now, and spend the weekend in profound gloom.

Labor Day, On the move

A picture-hanging at Blackird puts us out on the street. We try the Art Square park: locked. We “squat” a nearby courtyard. As impromptu al fresco Shakespeare performances go, it’s good. Personally, I feel like I’ve crested the ridge, found the character and am ready for the audience. Ashley feels likewise and we’re tickled not to have received any notes on our scenes.

Despite an online fundraising campaign, Hamlet is running on a skeletal budget and nonexistent production staff. Troy has to observe, direct, prompt and take notes simultaneously. Props and set pieces must be assembled in a wild, tech-week dash. Since we can’t load so much as Yorick’s skull into Onyx until three days before the premiere, we’ve been rehearsing with the bare minimum of infrastructure.

Sept. 4, Onyx

Troy predicted our first tech rehearsal would be a clusterfuck, and he wasn’t far wrong. We still have no set but have added a de facto eighth character: photographer and Co-Executive Producer Richard Brusky. Having someone taking snaps onstage from two feet away is jarring and I “dry” several times. It’s the actor’s worst nightmare: In mid-scene a black, bottomless mental chasm gapes where your next line is meant to be. This was my deepest fear about attempting Shakespeare after years out of practice. Would my cobwebbed synapses still retain all that Elizabethan verse? Sometimes one can cobble together some Shakespearean gobbledygook that gets you convincingly through an exit or transition, but I’m blanking on my biggest speech of the play. In another scene, my hand trembles when I have to brandish a tape player. Ronn, with whom I have formed a mutual-admiration society, steadies me.

Mercifully, Troy calls for a retake on my first scene with Ashley, and everything afterward goes pretty swimmingly. Alas, my walking stick and tongue-twisting announcement of the Player, both having finally been mastered, get cut. The play-within-the-play has been reimagined by Troy as an indescribably bad avant-garde film, with Mick hilariously weird on camera. It’s a mad montage of Disney, Donna Reed, Camelot, plus soft-core porn.

Sept. 5 Onyx

We finally have almost all of our set and props, which prove more a help than a hindrance, despite their unfamiliarity: The action feels 200 percent more real when we’re sitting on formal chairs around a solid, wooden table. Also, Sandy’s music continues to spur us to greater heights.

Sept. 6, Onyx

If a bad dress rehearsal portends a good opening, our debut should be spectacular. Our “dress” consists of a speedy Acts I-IV run-through before we’re shooed away so that Onyx can rehearse a 10 p.m. show. For the third straight night, Brusky is here, snapping away and wants a fourth rehearsal called expressly for his benefit. Never mind the players: We’re merely trying to do justice to Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy.

For Polonius’ demise, there is supposed to be a great spray of blood. Literally minutes before curtain, I am presented with my blood pack, which resembles a giant enema bag. There’s no time to learn to work it, so Troy will do the honors. (It fails and we later substitute a dishwashing-liquid bottle, which does the job perfectly.) Ronn and I are unhappy with our biggest scenes. After weeks of having fallen into a comfy (too comfy) rhythm in our confrontation, Geo and I are directed to change it up, so we’ll be attempting a new interpretation of the scene before our first-ever audience. Life in the theater is never dull.

Sept. 7, Opening night

Were we “spectacular”? I dunno, but we were damn good, and Geo was positively on fire: All the anguish, self-doubt, rage, madness and introspection Hamlet demands were present. He was positively incandescent, and his death scene moved me as never before. Around such a forceful fulcrum, the rest of our performances fall into their apportioned places as truly supporting actors. It’s a triumph for him and a very gratifying success for the rest of us, and Troy’s concept fulfills the pre-audition buzz.

As for me, it’s like an old racehorse hearing the call to post. Once I am onstage, feeling the presence of an audience, a great serenity descends. I even feel sufficiently relaxed to eat the lettuce that constitutes our opening-scene “dinner” and quaff a couple of glasses of “wine” (cranberry juice). Bless him, Troy waits until after I’m done to tell me that the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s feared Anthony del Valle was in the audience. We embrace emotionally and I say, “Thanks for making me an actor again.” Hamlet finishes in 95 minutes, exactly as planned. Afterward, there is much emotion, and Brandon flings a giant bear-hug upon me. Once home, all the tension of the last week suddenly falls away and I am as limp as a rag doll. That night, I sleep the slumber of the just.