As the longest running play in American theater history, “Shear Madness” is an outrageously funny, interactive “whodunit” murder-mystery whose topical humor and shameless innuendos leave the audience roaring with laughter. Though the play is currently in its 27th year at the Charles Playhouse, each performance is kept fresh with improvisation, an abundance of references to current popular culture, and an excellent sense of humor.
The Charles Playhouse is set up with several rows of seats and tables around three sides of the stage and a bar along the back. The small size of the theater lends an intimate feeling, perfect for audience interaction, and ensures that everyone has a clear view of the stage. The play takes place in the “Shear Madness Unisex Hair Styling Salon on 155 Newbury Street, Boston.” Although the set looks more as if it is a scene from “Grease” in the ’70s than an actual present-day Newbury St. hair salon, the simplicity of the set is ideal since the play relies heavily on the skill of the actors rather than on the use of the props.
Showing up early to the theater has its advantages. The audience is treated to a series of hit songs from the past couple of decades. Ten minutes before the start of the show, characters begin moving on and off stage. Dancing around is Tony Whitcomb (played by Patrick Shea), the stereotypical homosexual hairdresser who comes complete with a pink shirt, sashaying hips, and a tendency for overzealous use of hair products on his customers. His assistant is red-headed Barbara DeMarco (Zillah Glory), whose ample cleavage and hot red lipstick make her a favorite among the male customers, including Nick Rossetti (Michael Fennimore). In the opening scene, Rossetti uncomfortably finds himself getting a haircut in the happily wandering hands of Whitcomb. And if there was any doubt left as to where the scene is set, DeMarco’s thick Boston accent is unmistakable.
The play can be confusing at first, because the audience is unsure of whether the show has begun or not (especially since the characters conversations cannot be heard over the loud music), but promptly at 8 p.m., Whitcomb “turns off the radio” and the play commences in earnest.
As the show begins (or continues), the audience is introduced to the elderly Mrs. Schubert (Mary Klug), a wealthy and somewhat self-absorbed but charming woman who has an unfortunate habit of unknowingly making sexual innuendos. We also meet Edward “Eddie” Lawrence (Paul Dunn), a shady antiques dealer, and Mike Thomas (Mike Dorval), a seemingly ordinary customer. Banter filled with rapid-fire jokes flies back and forth between all the actors and pokes fun at both the actors on stage and various members of the audience, including a group of giggling women in the corner whom Mike Thomas dubbed “the Golden Girls” for the rest of the night.
The play takes an interesting turn when Barbara DeMarco runs back into the salon crying that the landlady, Isabel Czerny, a former concert pianist who lives upstairs, has been murdered. Mike Thomas and Nick Rossetti burst back into the salon with guns raised high in the air and announce that they are Boston police officers working undercover. To the surprise of both the audience and the characters on stage, Detective Mike Thomas turns to the audience and informs them that they are responsible for helping the detectives solve the murder by pointing out any inaccuracies in each character’s story as they reenact the scenes that took place up until Isabel Czerny was murdered.
Even during the 12-minute intermission, the audience is encouraged to take the opportunity to talk with the different characters and question them about events that occurred during the play. The second half continues the reenactment of events except that now the audience is allowed to directly question the characters on stage. The audience eventually puts to a vote who they think is the murderer, and the play continues as before while the audience sits back to discover who the guilty party is in the surprise ending.
Much of this play is held up by the good comedic timing and strong improvisational skills of the actors who bounce off each other and the audience to keep the play moving along. The acting is in fact so convincing and enjoyable at times that you have to wonder how the actors speak and act in real life. What results is an exceedingly amusing play that keeps the audience on their toes, laughing for two hours straight. I highly recommend “Shear Madness” for those looking for a hilarious and entertaining evening out in Boston.