Shear Madness, produced by Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan, takes place in a unisex hair salon in the present day. The play is always set in the city in which it performs and incorporates local humor that residents will especially appreciate. The plot, infused with slapstick and physical comedy and rapid-pace banter, revolves around a murder committed offstage. Part "Saturday Night Live," part Clue, the audience is invited to get in on the action by pointing out clues and questioning suspects; because the show is partly improvised and the actors incorporate audience feedback, the ending is never the same and there are plenty of surprises along the way.
The show has a special history in Boston, having run here for thirty-four years. "Boston really is the original," said Marilyn Abrams in a phone interview. "We've had wonderful, wonderful Boston actors who've contributed so many things." Abrams and Jordan started Shear Madness at a tiny dinner theatre in Lake George, New York, and after receiving positive feedback from audiences, they decided to bring it to Boston, where the production really took off. "Boston ... has just been so incredible to us," Abrams continued. "They just embraced us and we never turned back." Now the show is an international phenomenon: it's been translated into ten languages and performed on six continents. The French production, directed by Sébastien Azzopardi, was awarded the Molière de la comédie (part of the French equivalent of the Tony Awards) on June 2nd of this year.
Abrams attributes the show's success to its unique format and the fact that the humor is always fresh. It "incorporates two of the most popular forms of entertainment in one play," she said. "It's a comedy and a mystery. And ... it's always contemporary." This was certainly evident in the performance I saw, with cracks about the John Hancock building and what a pain it is to drive out to Braintree.
Of course, the show is bolstered by the comedic expertise of its ensemble cast, within which there truly are no weak links. Jordan Ahnquist explodes with energy as hairdresser Tony, whom I can best describe as similar to an ADD, flamboyant puppy (prancing to and fro and always wanting to be the center of attention); Ahnquist has previously performed with SpeakEasy Stage Company ([title of show]) and New Repertory Theatre (Hot Mikado, Hamlet), and his work with the Lyric Stage Company's Big River earned him an IRNE Award nomination for Best Actor in a Musical. Christopher Tarjan leads the cast as the (mostly) no-nonsense cop Nick, and he has a knack for playing off the audience and delivering a punch line. Tarjan has a long history with Shear Madness, having played every male role, performing in ten different cities, and now also serving as the Boston production's Associate Director. Mary Klug (who has worked in film, television, and more New England theaters than can be succinctly listed here) is fantastic as the less-than-astute Mrs. Shubert, whose humor is primarily linguistic (at one point, for example, she worries that the police will "drag me off in cufflinks"). IRNE Award-winning actress Celeste Oliva is perfectly sassy as assistant hairdresser Barbara, and Joseph Marrella (Nick's klutzy police partner Mikey) and Joe Ruscio (suspicious businessman Eddie) round out the cast.
Two things stand in this show: just as actors must trust one another in order to succeed, the cast of Shear Madness also trusts their audience. There are certain holes the audience is called upon to fill, and it takes a skilled combination of improvisation and prompting to move the plot along accordingly, which the cast does effortlessly. The second thing is just how much fun the show is, for the audience, sure, but also for the performers. It's obvious that the actors are having a blast, and that energy electrifies the whole room. You know it's a success when an unexpected, improvised action nearly halts the performance because the actors and the audience members are crying with laughter.
There's no denying it: this is a special show. As Abrams said, "I think all the time how incredibly lucky Bruce and I have been, and [how] incredibly difficult the theatre business is, and to actually have a success and a big hit is just an incredible thing. I've never gotten over the luck of the whole thing." For my part, I'm glad Boston is lucky enough to share in the fun.
Shear Madness runs indefinitely at the Charles Playhouse Stage II, 74 Warrenton Street (aka, Shear Madness AlleyI'm not kidding, check the street signs), Boston. Performances are 8:00pm Tuesdays - Fridays, 6:00pm and 9:00pm Saturdays, and 3:00pm and 7:00pm Sundays. Tickets are $50 each, and groups of fifteen or more can receive discounts, priority seating, and special performances. For more information or to buy tickets, call 617-426-5225 or visit shearmadness.com.