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.

The showiest, funniest, and most challenging part, however, belongs to George Contini as Tony Whitcomb, the salon owner, who plays his role to maximum comic effect. Contini is hilarious when he's camp and realistic when he's serious. While Shear Madness itself is an inspired show, Contini turns this production into a great one.

If tempus fugit during Shear Madness, time comes to a dead standstill during the two-hour- long first act of Chaplin, the world premiere of a weakly written musical about the life of the great comic. It's further proof that, in theater, good acting alone isn't sufficient. In this production, directed ably by David Spangler for the Shores Performing Arts Center, the large cast sings and dances extremely well, and in the lead, Wayne LeGette performs with considerable skill as the Little Tramp. Margot Moreland as his mentally unbalanced mother also does excellent work.

So it's truly too bad this cast wasn't placed in a more attractive vehicle instead of this flawed retelling of Chaplin's life, which relies on too much heavy pathos from the start and offers too little action. Endless scenes about Charlie's miserable childhood in London with his alcoholic father and impoverished mother are made even less entertaining by pedestrian melodies that play on for about three verses too long. This deadly combination serves to bury almost the entire first act in dramatic mud. Things only get rolling at the end of that first half, and even though the second act does pick up, it's hard to justify the long wait.

Since this is a work in progress, there's always hope. At the very least, the authors should study The Who's Tommy, even with its flaws, to see how the opening exposition about Tommy's early years is handled with swift, built-in excitement. In the case of these playwrights, they would be far more effective by giving us Chaplin's background in a few short scenes and then focusing the show around the subject at hand: the master himself.

While watching Shear Madness, I rarely had a chance to catch my breath as the jokes and the action raced along. During Chaplin, my thoughts strayed back to my last holiday in Fort Myers, the calls I had to make, the bills I needed to pay -- and I still had enough leeway to sketch out an idea for a novel.

To make a script work well on stage, it not only has to be good, it needs to be good from the beginning. Lose an audience in the first twenty minutes and they're lost forever. Authors should take a tip from Shakespeare, who opened Hamlet with the arrival of a ghost. There was no Hello, how are you? dialogue. Just action. If time was so precious in his century, the cost of it certainly hasn't gone down today.

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