Shear Delight

Time is alarmingly relative. Anyone who is rapidly aging knows the truth of time's subjective effects. When you're ten or eleven, it seems as though your next birthday will never arrive. However, when you pass 40, years fly by with such alarming speed you suffer from emotional whiplash. What, 1994 already? It was just 1983!

Theater critics also recognize that certain moments in life definitely contract or elongate, depending on one essential variable: the show that the critic is seeing. A wonderfully crafted first act can appear to last only twenty minutes when it was actually an hour. On the other hand, sitting and shifting through a 90-minute act in a dragging dud has the same effect on the mind as physical torture -- every tick of the clock feels like an entire hour has elapsed.

Fortunately, thanks to the ridiculous genius of Shear Madness, the first interactive mystery (and just about the only good one), two hours sped by like a super train. In fact, this was the first show I attended in South Florida in which every elderly person in the house stayed awake throughout the action, which suggests that excellent entertainment may combat cerebral hardening of the arteries.

Of course, this play, the brainchild of Swiss author Paul Portner and adapted into its current camp format by producers Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan, boasts a long history of pulling in the crowds and keeping them on their toes. The fourteen-year-old Boston company and the twelve-year-old Chicago company are both listed in The Guinness Book of World Records as among the longest running productions in a single theater. Companies in Philadelphia, Montreal, Houston, Barcelona, and elsewhere are all doing similar big business with this cash cow of a comedy. Luckily, Brian C. Smith's Off Broadway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale grabbed the rights earlier this year and is now presenting it in our area for, predictably, an ongoing run.

Having seen the Boston and Washington productions, I bring especially glad tidings about this version. Not only is the show just as quirky, zany, witty, and wonderful here, but in many ways, the South Florida cast is the best I've seen. The piece depends on the actors' improvisational actions and rapid-fire replies, and their abilities to keep the high comedy at a peak pitch is a test of their professional skills. In many ways, Shear Madness is a trial by fire for the performer. In the second act, when the audience is allowed to participate in the action, virtually anything can happen, including dramatic disaster. However, this cast has the situation well under control and while the show may vary every night -- that's part of the madness -- I'm sure each new incarnation will be as entertaining as the night I attended.

If you're looking for highbrow, serious entertainment, stay away from this one. Designed for audiences who want (or even need) a good time, it's meant to tickle out those sophomoric giggles. When done properly, you just can't help joining in the silly spirit of the corny one-liners and outlandish characterizations. Even while you're trying to convince yourself that this is nonsense, you start laughing at the high jinks. Attending Shear Madness reminds you of those days when as a young child you hopelessly collapsed into giggles because the teacher's bra strap was showing. In this current age of murder and mutilation, a night that can make you feel so lighthearted again should almost be prescribed by a physician.

Without giving away the gimmicks, I can safely say that the plot involves the murder of a famous pianist, and that the entire action is set in a very tacky beauty salon aptly named Shear Madness. Two cops named Nick and Mikey arrive at the shop to interrogate the suspects and serve as straight men to this wacky array of possible culprits, including Barbara De Marco, the bimbo hair stylist; Eddie Lawrence, a shady "used antiques" dealer; Mrs. Shubert, a snotty alcoholic matron; and Tony Whitcomb, the flamboyant owner of the salon. At a certain point in the script, Nick allows the audience to interrogate each of the characters. That's when the written jokes end and the spontaneous laughs begin.

Part of the fun of attending Shear Madness is to watch the audience (including yourself) fall into certain traps and ask ignorant or pretentious questions. Actually, if the show possesses a big premise at all, I suppose "people are stupid" would be it. The rest of the uproarious atmosphere is evoked by the performers/suspects who blithely interact with increasingly vocal audience members. And that's where this particularly high energy, often bitchy cast excels.

Blue-haired, gum-chewing, and catty, Paula Jo Chitty as Barbara plays the moll to the hilt, bringing to mind the great Carole Lombard's comic gifts. Peter Paul de Leo, usually cast in more serious drama at ACME Acting Company, exhibits great timing in a role that fits him like a pair of cement overshoes: the Mafioso-like Eddie. Barbara Bradshaw perfectly embodies a high-class hypocrite, and Larry Belkin as the pathetic cop Mikey does an excellent job in a minimal role. As the lead policeman, Nick, Gordon McConnell is the weakest member of the cast, sometimes inappropriately laughing at his own jokes and fluffing lines, but since his character mainly serves to move along the action rather than create it, his deficiencies don't damage the production.

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