I hereby issue the following challenge: Find your grumpiest friend or relation and bring them to Shear Madness. If they do not give in to the experience, have a great time and turn their frown upside down, I doubt there is much hope for such a sour puss.
Associate Artistic Director Bob Lohrmann recently told DC Theatre Scene, “I defy you not to get involved” in Shear Madness.
He said a mouthful.
After twenty-five years and more than 10,000 cans of shaving cream, Shear Madness is still sharp, silly and totally engaging.
Everything works in Shear Madness. And by ‘everything works,’ I mean that you will laugh until you no longer think you have it in you. It works when the actors interact with each other and it really works when a murder takes place and the tension mounts among the suspects. And the entire experience is made whole when the detectives look to the ‘witnesses’ – that’s the audience – to question the possible perpetrators.
The premise is ingenious in its simplicity: Shear Madness is a Georgetown hair salon run by the flamboyant Tony Whitcomb – a charming and buoyant portrayal by Neil Casey. Tony is assisted by the gum-chewing “dame” Barbara DeMarco. Tiernan Madorno brings a sassy vibe to Barbara’s lines and rapport with the other characters.
Walk-ins and regular customers come into the shop for appointments, such as the nerdy milquetoast, Mikey. (I caught a performance in which Jarreau Williams played the role instead of Jonathan Lee Taylor.) Aaron Shields made for a cagey and secretive business man, Eddie Lawrence. As society matron prone to malapropisms, Brigid Cleary was a snooty hoot as Mrs. Shubert.
Blue collar Nick O’Brien also finds himself in the salon. Played with skillful concentration by Patrick Noonan, Nick finds he has reason to fear Tony and the shave he nearly gets from him. (Cue hilarious shaving cream gag.)
Once the characters are introduced, the audience glimpses some suspicious behavior from nearly every character. The tight construction is a credit to original author Paul Pörtner and the adapters and producers Bruce Jordan and Marilyn Abrams.
Another stroke of genius lies in how they adjust the comedy to the city in which it plays. Along with the local setting, up to date – sometimes up to the minute – references are made to news events, popular culture, politics, and trends of the day. The audience howled at jokes and mentions of the political players (from the obvious Obama and Romney digs to brand new VP pick Paul Ryan), catchphrases (“YOLO”), the news (fracas at Chik-fil-A), and Washington’s oppressive August heat.
A few bits of cornball dialogue and zingers slip in occasionally: When someone is bleeding on stage, Tony offers, “I’m practically a paramedic … I have every season of “Grey’s Anatomy” on DVD.”
Mrs. Shubert is asked how she takes her husband; she answers, “With Prozac.”
The one-liners add a dose of sketch humor but not enough to pull the audience away from the heart of the matter: there is a murder and only four suspects.
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The audience learns just enough information about the victim – reclusive and never seen concert pianist Isabel Czerny – to keep the story interesting.
Along with the quick gags, clues and cagey behavior furiously fly by. The police reveal themselves and spend the rest of the play questioning the suspects nearly unsuccessfully. That is until the lead detective turns to the audience and asks their help in reconstructing the events leading up to the murder. They are encouraged to point out mistakes, question motives and help determine the guilty party.
The improvisational skills of the actors are tested at each performance when the audience members grill them about suspicious details. After the audience learns how much the suspects will gain or lose by murdering Isabel, the votes are tallied and the actors adjust the ending of the play.
The original direction by Bruce Jordan, and the continuing work by Bob Lohrmann, is evident in casting strong comedic actors who bring a sense of fun to the stage but are able to convey the seriousness of a heinous crime.
Shear Madness looks great in its temporary home in the Family Theater of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Kim Peter Kovac’s original salon set has been adapted by Scott L. Hammar into a pastel vision that brightens the stage almost without the use of electricity. Dan Covey’s crisp lighting design and Hammar’s costumes add to the sense of fun. It returns to the newly renovated Theater Lab on November 9th.
SHEAR MADNESS. Presented by the Kennedy Center, Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan. Directed and designed by Bruce Jordan; associate artistic director Bob Lohrmann. Original sets, Kim Peter Kovac; costumes and set adapted by Scott L. Hammar; lightings, Dan Covey; sound, John Vengrouskie. CAST: Tiernan Madorno (Barbara DeMarco), Jarreau Williams (Mikey Thomas), Neil Casey (Tony Whitcomb), Aaron Shields (Eddie Lawrence), Patrick Noonan (Nick O’Brien), Brigid Cleary (Mrs. Shubert), Francie Glick (Understudy).