The important thing to remember about the genuinely funny murder/mystery comedy Shear Madness, now playing at Phoenix Theatre’s Hormel Theatre, is not that it’s one of the longest running plays in the world; it’s that each night the show will be different. As with Mother Nature’s design of a snow flake, no two shows can ever be alike; each is unique in a way that a repeat performance can never possibly happen. Here’s why.
Shear Madness is billed as a show in the NOW. Even though to date it has ran for more than thirty-five years, the jokes and references are not only current, they’re local, and the ending will be a different one to the ending seen the night before. Imagine playing the board game Clue: the victim is the same but the cards you’re dealt and the way you play them will always alter.
During the ten minutes before the play begins and the audience is still comparing tickets to seat numbers, cast members are already on set, comically engaged in their day to day business of running a unisex hair salon in Phoenix, an outstanding pastel colored set design by Richard Farlow. A customer’s hair is washed on-stage while the flamboyant Tony (Pasha Yamotahari) and co-worker Barbara (Elizabeth Brownlee) exchange comments, tidy the shop and break out into a nicely choreographed few seconds to Beyonce’s Single Ladies. It’s about the time when the music on the radio changes to the Village People that the house lights dim and the show really begins.
After the cast crack topical and local jokes regarding the area – Ahwatukee residents should enjoy being referred to as living in the ‘Burbs – we learn that the annoying old landlady upstairs, an unseen Isabel Czerny, is so old “she used to baby-sit for John McCain.” The woman won’t quit playing her piano and no amount of banging on the pipes will stop her. “She took Viagra because she thought it helped old pianists play better,” we’re told.
Then, once we’ve met all the cast – Tony, Barbara, the slightly snobby older lady, Mrs. Shubert (Patti Davis Suarez) and the well-groomed ‘used’ antique dealer Eddie Lawrence (Mathew Zimmerer) – the murder of Isabel Czerny is committed and the two Phoenix department cops, Mikey (Mark Jacobson) and the detective in the Cardinal’s shirt, Nick Rossetti (Gene Ganssle) begin their investigation.
The script calls for jokes every few seconds in the way a TV sit-com has to have a laugh every other sentence. With the amount of topical references the cast make – they mention everything from an inflatable Jan Brewer, TV’s Once Upon A Time and Geico Insurance to repeated plugs for Damon Dering’s Nearly Naked Theatre next door – the show’s dialog must bear little or no resemblance to the play performed on opening night thirty-five years ago, even though the setup is the same. So the question is, who killed Isabel Czerny? We know it happened in her apartment with six inch haircutting shears, but who did it? That’s where the audience comes in to play.
Not only do we get the chance to observe the goings-on before and after the murder occurs, we get to use those observations as a means of doing our own investigation. Just when detective Rossetti has gathered as much information as he can – “I’ll have you know the Phoenix police are the best cops money can buy,” he proudly declares – he turns to the audience, raises the house lights and talks directly to us. What makes this moment all the funnier is that the other cast members turn to the audience and appear suddenly surprised that they’ve been watched all this time by those hiding behind the fourth wall. From there we get to ask our own questions while the cast defend themselves, ad-libbing all the way to the intermission. A crime-scene tape is circled around the set while the detective mingles in the theatre lobby with the audience, continuing his line of questions before returning for the second act and eventually the big reveal.
What makes Shear Madness so much fun is not so much the obvious ad-libbing the cast has to furnish with every performance, it’s knowing and appreciating the obligation each actor has to make to the show in order for the ever-developing production to work, night after night. The script calls for nothing less than total commitment. Each performer has to be so thoroughly engaged in what their personality can or can’t do that to break character, if only for a second, is to break the spell of the show. Once you realize this and appreciate the professionalism each cast member has to invest as they re-write the investigation, night after night, Shear Madness takes on the level of something quite unique in live theatre – and it’s something that film can never deliver: it’s the knowledge that what you’re watching will never be seen by anyone else ever again.
When a child in the audience asked the antique dealer a pointed question with an accusing tone, actor Mathew Zimmerer responded without hesitation, “How old are you kid, twelve? You wanna make thirteen?” And when another audience member asked a question about a certain notebook, Pasha Yamatahari quietly ad-libs, “Love that movie.”
To add to the show’s valley flavor even further, a recording of local radio personality Beth McDonald is played at the opening of the second half bringing everyone up to date with the characters, their motives and the story so far, concluding with “… And now for traffic with Mark Jeffrey.”
There’s always the sense of danger during the ad-libbed/audience participation moments where the show might lose its energy as a cast member hesitates with a response or maybe an overzealous audience member wants to insert themselves into the questioning more than they should, but director Robert Kolby Harper has done his homework. He’s prepped his cast on how to handle just about every possible scenario, either intentional or unintentional, and it shows.
In the end, whoever committed the crime isn’t as important as the steps taken to get to that point. Shear Madness has big laughs from a dedicated cast. And here’s the real fun – no matter how many times you see it, you’ll never guess the murderer.
For times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the Phoenix Theatre website.