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"Cut, cut, cut!"

Halsey Thornton ran up to the stage while his actors dropped out of character with a small sigh of disgust.

"Denny, you're doing this scene all wrong. When Hamlet's father appears, he is the ghost of a poisoned man. He was once strong, but has been castrated. You're making him speak like he's Teddy Roosevelt on steroids!"

Dennis Messinger rolled his eyes slightly and then smiled. "You know, if you had cast me as Hamlet, we might not have these problems ..."

"Denny, baby. You're pushing 60. Hamlet's barely out of his teens. This ain't sponsored by Geritol." Dennis bristled at Halsey's condemnation. "Now let's head back to the entrance scene."

The troupe had been at the scene for nearly two hours. It was a week until curtain time, and they hadn't even finished Act I! Sure, most of them had their soliloquies down pat, but Halsey was being awful pushy. Sure enough, they were cut off five more times before it was done to his satisfaction - on to Act 2!

In the dressing room that evening as the rehearsal wound down, Dennis struck up a conversation with Paula Jergens, who was playing Ophelia and looked every bit the girl who needed to get to a nunnery.

"So, what do you say we head out to dinner after this?"

"I don't think so, Dennis. I already made plans with Rob."

"Rob?! Why that insufferable twit, he's an emotional nightmare! I can see why they picked him for Hamlet, but need I remind you that he winds up dead at the end of the picture?"

Paula gave Dennis a leering half-smile, half-scowl. "Need I remind you you're dead from the get go?" She walked past his gaping face with a conspiratorial smirk.

Dennis sat down in one of the lounge chairs. He had been big. Broadway, the movies - he'd even guest starred on "L.A. Law" twice - and now this. Community theater in Scranton, just to make a buck. Well, he thought, screw Halsey. Shakespeare used to play the ghost when he did Hamlet because it was the whole motivation behind the rest of the sodding scenes. I'm sure he hammed it up. Dennis sighed again. Dead from the get go. That hack. He smiled and drifted off into a quiet nap...

The night before opening curtain had Halsey at Dennis' throat. The two had battled over the portrayal of Hamlet's father all week, and there was no end in sight. The rest of the cast had ignored all the drama, and were ready to go with their roles. Halsey had threatened to fire Dennis twice, but he knew deep down that it was Dennis' star power that would get people in the doors the first few nights, so it was an idle warning. Finally, he just threw his hands up in the air: "Fine, it'll be your vision. Who cares about big breaks and good impressions? It'll just be the Denny Messinger Hour!"

Secretly, Dennis felt a little bad. He had thrown his weight around a lot in the casting and even some of the production decisions. He of course had the most experience with Shakespeare, but that was no reason to be so haughty. Still, he had to have some principles left, and this was to be his last performance, if he could help it.

"Halsey, just let me take the lead. I know what I'm doing, and I won't let you down."

Halsey paused at this rare show of companionship. He nodded his head crisply, and then .. "Places, everyone! And ... action!"

Light applause from the sold-out crowd filtered to the stage as the lights cast down on Bernardo and Francisco on their castle portcullis. Soon the Ghost made his ghastly appearance (using a new lighting trick to give him a healthy shimmer) in the background, with Horatio and Bernardo debating on how to address it. Halsey, sitting in the small section stage right so he could easily get backstage, was flabbergasted at how surreal the ghost looked. Dennis walked the perfect slow walk of the dead and downtrodden, making not a sound as he moved his away across the stage and out of sight.

Halsey caught Dennis on the other side. "Beautiful. You ready for the big scene?"

Dennis nodded slowly, and Halsey was struck by how somber and stoic Dennis looked. As he walked back to his seat, he broke into a little smile. That little pep talk at noon really worked!

"Look, my Lord, here it comes!" Horatio shouted. The Ghost reappeared, this time moving from deep stage closer to the middle. The shimmer effect was astounding. Several members of the audience gasped at the pale visage. With his tarnished crown and sunken eyes, Dennis looked truly horrific.

"Mark me." The chilling words echoed with a strange resonance. The dialogue between Rob and Dennis was almost painful, filled with a dramatic buzz that directors would kill for. Halsey was ecstatic.

"My hour is almost come, when I to sulphurous and tormenting flames must render up myself," Dennis said in a commanding yet faded voice. His tones were ethereal, his face ashen, his very image spectral. Rob picked up on this trait, and began casting himself as the grief-stricken son.

"Alas, poor ghost!" he cried out.

The scene continued, with Dennis' ringing tones filling the hall with the words of prophesy and portent that the audience knew spelled doom for so many later. It was nervewracking to watch the wispy shadow of Dennis turn to the crowd on rare occasion and utter a line or two with such discontent and menace as to be positively hideous. Halsey noticed (with a slight twinge of dissatisfaction) that a few people turned their heads away from the stage as the scene took place.

Finally, the Ghost descended through the trapdoor, demanding that Hamlet swear to avenge him. As he called out "Swear!" from beneath the stage, it grew louder and louder, becoming almost a cacophonous, distorted howl.

"O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!" Horatio cried out, and one timid audience member cried out with a frightened mewl of agreement.

"SWEAR!" The final cry escaped from below, and Hamlet's agonizing reply, "Rest, rest, perturbed spirit!" was followed by a hair-raising silence. The buzz that had occupied the entire room seemed to escape into the night air, and every member of the audience collectively relaxed, loosening their grips on the armrests.

When the curtains finally fell, the crowd leapt to its feet. The curtain call came - and there was no Ghost. Even Halsey was confused as he took his place on stage with the cast and took his final bows. Perhaps Denny had taken an inopportune bathroom break. The ovation lasted for over 30 calls (a new personal record for every cast member) and took nearly an hour. It was an unqualified success.

As the cast took to the dressing room, there was no sign of Denny - but his costume lay by his dresser. Seeing it laid out neat and proper caused Paula to give a small cry of discovered surprise. The rest of the cast gathered around, but could make no sense of it. Finally, they figured Denny had simply slipped out for an early drink since his role in the play was done so early. He had certainly earned it.

As they began changing out of their costumes, Diana Tomlinson aka Gertrude, decided she had to go to the bathroom. She went to the door and -

"It's locked. Can someone help me?"

Rob walked over and gave the knob a tug to confirm. He walked over to the stage director's desk, pulled out a small set of keys, and came back over. He unlocked the door and swung it open to let Diana pass.

Her scream echoed through the ampitheater as the rest of the cast gathered around to catch a quick glimpse of the slumped over body of Denny Messinger. He was quite dead.

As the detective finished taking notes and the medical examiner zipped up the body for a trip to the operating table, Halsey burst into another round of tears.

"I don't understand, he wasn't so old."

"Heart attack. They happen all the time."

"But his performance tonight was astounding! The energy, the calculation, the presence!"

The medical examiner stopped rolling the body out the door. "Performance?"

"Yes. This is a theater." He paused. "We put on plays?" he added sardonically.

"This man didn't. He's been dead over six hours. Since about four o'clock this afternoon."

"But he was on stage! We all saw him!" He turned, and the few remaining cast members were staring at him with the wild eyes of disbelief. And it was then that he understood what he was being told.

"O day and night but this is wondrous strange ...," Halsey thoughtlessly mumbled as the ME resumed his journey to the morgue with the body - but not the Ghost - of Denny Messinger.