“Shear Madness” is every bit as much fun today as it was thirty years ago

Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Brett Beiner.

I have fond memories of seeing Shear Madness during its original 17-year-long Chicago run in the 80s and 90s, so I was definitely looking forward to Mercury Theater’s revival of this audience-participation comic whodunnit. I was not at all disappointed. Updated with dozens of contemporary and topical jokes and references, this new production of the play is every bit as fun and funny as it ever was.

For those who don’t remember, Shear Madness is set in a Chicago hair salon of that name (on a lovely set designed by Ben Lipinski) run by a flamingly gay stylist named Tony Whitcomb (Ed Kross, who rarely sets his energy level below 11) and his assistant Barbara DeMarco (Chicago newcomer Brittany D. Parker). The salon is in a building owned by the reclusive retired pianist Isabel Czerny, who lives directly above the shop and whose piano playing filtering through the ceiling continually riles Tony (though, with the volume at which he plays his radio, the irritation really ought to be reversed). 

On this particular day the salon’s customers include socialite Mrs. Schubert (a member of Chicago’s Pritzger family played by Mary Robin Roth), Eddie Lawrence (David Sajewich), Mikey Thomas (Sam Woods), and Nick Rossetti (Joe Popp). (Roth and Popp are veterans of that previous Chicago run of the show.) After these characters are introduced, and pretty much everyone has time to act suspiciously in some way, Czerny is discovered in a pool of blood upstairs in her apartment, stabbed repeatedly in the throat with a pair of hair scissors, and the mystery is on.

The fast-paced action and dialogue (directed with aplomb by Warner Crocker) allows every actor the opportunity to have lots of fun exploring their characters, each of whom is more of a caricature than anything else, but that’s part of the fun. As the police try to uncover what has occurred (and there are lots of jokes about donuts and the efficacy of the Chicago police), the action suddenly stops, the fourth wall is shattered, house lights come on, and the policeman in charge announces that the audience members themselves will help solve the crime through their observations of what has happened onstage to that point. On opening night, even Popp seemed impressed by the details that some people in the audience recalled, and all of this is added to the clues that are used to solve the mystery.

Of course, any play that relies so significantly on its audience to further its story is going to be different every night. In fact, the audience itself even determines that evening’s killer. This cast, under Crocker’s direction, is able to improvise whatever they need to either to run with an observation or joke or to find a way back to scenes they have yet to share so that we know everything we need to. Many of these improvisations, both verbal and physical, are hilariously funny. On opening night, some impulse led Kross’s Tony to plant a kiss on the mouth of the detective, apropos of practically nothing, which ended up nearly cracking up the entire cast. This is one play in which it is exceedingly clear that the actors are having as much fun as the audience. 

The real joy of this play, though, is that it is all humor, all the time. The ten jokes a minute pace reminded me of the movie Airplane and, as in that movie, some jokes land and others do not, but enough of them do to keep you laughing most of the time. From the prologue—pantomimed under loud oldies music, during which Crocker introduces us to the stylists and their eccentricities—right through to the ending (whatever that may be), the onstage action keeps the audience in stitches.

I can’t say enough about how much fun Shear Madness is. There is a reason for that 17-year run, and the show has lost absolutely nothing with age. (I guess there is no statute of limitations for utter silliness.) Come to participate, come to laugh, come to play detective: whatever your reasons and expectations, you will have a good time. Shear Madness is sheer joy. If you never saw the original, or if you merely want to revisit the fun, don’t miss it. 

Shear Madness is now playing at Mercury Theater, 3745 N Southport, Chicago, IL, until Mar 29. The show runs approximately two hours; there is one intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.

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