Quirky Onyx Theatre enjoying resurgence

This time last year, the funky Onyx Theatre — located inside a Commercial Center fetish shop — looked like it was about to bring down the curtain for good.

Now, the fetish shop is gone, replaced by a 50-seat studio space. And the 99-seat main stage is in the midst of a busy 10th-anniversary season — including three Christmas plays ending their current runs this weekend.

Not that any of the plays qualify as traditional holiday fare.

In the studio, there’s the twisted comedy “The Eight: Reindeer Monologues,” in which Santa Claus’ Elite Eight reindeer address rumors, from dark doings at the North Pole to Rudolph’s stay in an insane asylum.

On Saturday morning, “Elf U.: A Crash Course in Christmas” transports audiences to the first day of Elf Training, with Mrs. Claus and Mary Christmas offering expert instruction.

And the world premiere of “The Blanche DeBris Emergency Xmas Broadcast” follows the title burlesque queen as she attempts to save a low-power radio station in rural Nevada from a greedy land developer.

DeBris (the stage name of Annette Houlihan Verdolino) took her show-within-a-show inspiration from vintage Yuletide TV specials, along with such vintage favorites as George Burns and Gracie Allen’s comedy series, “The Carol Burnett Show” and even “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”

The Onyx is a natural home for such offbeat fare, says Verdolino, who moved to Las Vegas in 2003 and spent six years as a “Menopause the Musical” cast member.

“There’s no place (else) for this kind of theater — I always call it fringe theater,” she says. “To me, that’s what the Onyx is known for.”

And that’s what the Onyx has managed to provide in 2015, with producing director Troy Heard calling the shots.

During the past year, the Onyx presented 12 main stage shows (from the spoofy “Showgirls the Musical” and “Mister Wives” to a new production of the award-winning “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”), plus two studio productions, its first children’s show (the aforementioned “Elf U.”) and multiple improv, cabaret and variety shows.

“My head is still spinning,” admits Heard, taking a break from rehearsing the cast of January’s “Reservoir Dolls,” an estrogen-fueled makeover of Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 cinematic heist thriller. “There are always moments when you’re going by the sweat of your brow. But that’s not new for the Onyx.”

When Heard polls audiences before each Onyx show, asking them to ” ‘Raise your hands if this is your first time here,’ 50 percent of the hands go up,” he says. “That’s such a wonderful thing.” Especially because “they’ve become repeat audience members.”

One key to the Onyx’s resurgence, in Heard’s view, was “turning the Rack into a studio theater.”

The fetish shop closed late last year, but “we still have people who are under the impression that we’re behind a sex shop,” Heard says.

Currently, “99 percent of our income has come solely from ticket sales,” he notes. And while “we pride ourselves on being a jeans and T-shirt theater,” the Onyx “needs a little more polish.”

To that end, the Onyx has launched a “10 for 10” crowdfunding campaign “to get some operating capital,” Heard explains. He hopes the current campaign (with a $10,000 goal) will raise enough money to redo the stage floor, upgrade lighting and ticketing systems and make other physical improvements, along with “more educational theater and more youth theater.”

In the process, “we’re still finding the balance” of programming and “branding the company,” says Heard, who also has a separate theater company, Table 8 Productions, dedicated to “original, immersive works” that have played venues from downtown’s Art Square Theatre to The Smith Center’s Troesh Studio Theater.

Heard says he was “absolutely not” looking for another job when the Onyx’s landlord started looking for someone to run the theater late last year.

“I never wanted the pressures of keeping the doors open,” he says, noting that he accepted the post “with a cocked eyebrow.”

After all, “much bigger and older theaters close all the time now, due to the economy,” Heard points out.

But the Onyx isn’t just any theater, argues Todd VonBastiaans, who runs the Alios lighting agency with Bryan McCarthy — and volunteers with Onyx and other local theaters.

“We’re doing professional stuff on the Strip,” he explains, “but we believe in giving back.” And at the Onyx, “you have professionals putting in their time, energy and talent.”

In the year since the Onyx survived its imminent demise, “it’s definitely expanded its range,” Verdolino says, to become “a home for improv, a lot of solo pieces and a lot of original works” — including hers.

“We’ve got so much to be grateful for,” Heard acknowledges. “We keep the doors open and we keep the lights on, which is a miracle.”

— Read more from Carol Cling at reviewjournal.com. Contact her at ccling@reviewjournal.com and follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.

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