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Theater Review: Shear Madness

By Zarminae Ansari

Stage II at the Charles Playhouse

Downstairs at 72 Warrenton Street

Tickets: $28$32, call 451-0195

Shear Madness is the longest running comedy and non-musical play in America, with 3,225 consecutive performances in Boston. This original comedy has been adapted all over the world, and has won all kinds of coveted theater awards. The play has been running for more than 18 years. We went to try and figure out why.

The theater is basically just a large room with a bar at one end, and a multi-level floor. Seats and tables surround the stage on 3 sides and add to the informal atmosphere, encouraging audience participation. We got there early, which gave us time to flip through our copy of "The Proscenium." This publication was full of factoids and trivia about the play and the Charles Playhouse theater. For example: It was architect Benjamin Asher who built it in 1839 (that is pretty obvious considering the state of the rest-rooms and lack of ventilation). The building has had an interesting life and a diverse spectrum of uses. Born as a religious building, the Fifth Universalist Church, it was at different times Boston's first synagogue in 1864, a night club and jazz venue - even a speakeasy during prohibition - and finally the Charles Playhouse since 1958. Famous people who have performed there include Fats Waller in the Forties, and Al Pacino before he was Al Pacino.

The play started without a bang. Actually, for a while the characters went on and off stage checking the props, humming to the loud radio music that had been blaring since we entered, and we were not sure it had started. The play was almost a mime for a while as the actors lip-synced to the music and set the scene in a salon on Newbury street, where all the action takes place. While the salon is set up with all the right equipment, it is doubtful any salon on Newbury would look as gaudy as this one, or attract the type of clients that are in the play. At this point, one of my friends decided that this was going to be one long play, and escaped to the bar. It was not long before he returned to enjoy the rest of this rather enjoyable comic whodunit.

The scene opens with the first unfortunate client, who lusts after the trashy but attractive assistant and is exasperated with the distracted salon owner. The client ends up running out of the salon tearing his hair out of his almost bald pate. Since he had come in to get a haircut, it was almost slapstick humor and easy laughs that made him flee. Guaranteed to get laughs is Mark S. Cartier's portrayal of the gay hair stylist in pink sneakers, not for his pink sneakers, but for his breathlessly energetic performance.

A fear that the comedy might be stale is justified for such a long-running play, but Cartier's fresh performance does not disappoint, even though the role of gay hair dresser/beautician is so stereotypical. Then again, this is not a complex drama but a comedy, and comedies often rely on using the familiar, the cliched to elicit laughter. Comparisons to Nathan Lane in The Birdcage are perhaps unfair because of the different mediums of theater and film, but are inevitable because of the physicality of Cartier's performance.

The other stereotypical, yet well-played character was that of a wealthy Beacon Hill snob, Mrs. Schubert. With a tendency for kleptomania, and a sense of superiority over other, lesser mortals of the Boston Metropolitan Area, Mrs. Schubert is played to a fault by Ellen Colton, a guest lecturer at MIT.

Celeste Oliva plays the good looking salon assistant with a nasal, pronounced Boston accent. Here I must admit I could not decide if her character was supposed to be as irritatingly whiny as she sounded, or perhaps it was the rejected-from-Jerry-Springer eighties look that needs to be updated. Decide for yourself.

The topical jokes and references need some revision. Viewers used to Letterman and Leno will probably not be tickled pink by dated references such as George Bush's illness while on a trip to Japan I mean, even if you remember the incident and understand the reference, it's not what' s on your mind today, or even last month.

However, it must be said that by the time you get used to the strong smell of hair-spray, the play picks up its frenetic pace and retains it almost consistently till the end.

Perhaps the most refreshing and single most amusing aspect of the play is its interactivity. A murder is discovered and four members of the cast are suspected, each of which has a secret that is hinted at. Then the action stops abruptly and the audience is allowed to question the suspects, and finally vote on the most likely murderer. Whomever the majority of the audience votes for is the murderer for that evening's performance, and the play continues with that plot ending. While not exactly an Agatha Christie thriller, it is an amusing whodunit, and for the most part keeps you guessing. So technically, you could see the play at least four times and see a different play each time. While no doubt those endings are all well-rehearsed (the play has, after all, been around for 18 years), there is an element of surprise and spontaneity that definitely comes across. There were even moments during the play when characters seem to do things that aren't in the script, leaving the rest of the cast trying their best to disguise their amusement, and sometimes even bursting out laughing along with the audience.

The play is a mixture of different genres of comedy, and perhaps that is the reason for the long running success. It is, in turn witty, satirical, slapstick, and goofy. But most of it is really rather funny. (You thought I would say "shear madness," didn't you?)