THEATER REVIEW Murder, Improv, and Pithy One-Liners

A Whodunit with Humor Close to Home

Shear Madness

Charles Playhouse, Boston, MA

October 20, 2009

The Charles Street Theater delivers with Shear Madness. The combination of a murder mystery, improv comedy, and audience interaction makes this a very unique production. The show’s motley cast features a flamboyantly gay hair salon owner, an attractive and spunky female hairdresser, a slimy salesman, an elderly blue-blooded woman, and two stereotypical Boston cops. The chemistry of the cast adds spice to the on-stage interactions; even the actors occasionally erupt into laughter at each other’s ad lib.

Although the entrance to the theater leaves something to be desired, the actual stage and audience seating area set the perfect atmosphere for the show. The majority of the seating is at small, two-person tables that provide an intimate feel to the experience. It promotes communication among audience members — who are often eager to discuss plot developments amongst themselves. The proximity of the seating to the stage allows audience members to feel as though they are in the action, which encourages them to contribute during the interactive portion of the show.

The first act opened with Tony Wickham, the salon owner, distractedly snipping away at a client’s hair while gabbing to hairdresser Barbara DeMarco. Although entertaining, Tony tended to rely a bit too heavily on jokes about his attraction to men. Tony himself admitted this when he says, “In the 90s, I was a stereotype — now I’m retro!” When not attempting to flirt with the men on stage and in the audience, Tony ranted about the landlady who lives upstairs (the former concert pianist Isabel Czerny, who often played her piano loudly).

The plot is set into motion when Barbara discovers the death of Mrs. Czerny. The remainder of the play is the “whodunit” portion, in which the cast questions each other and the audience about the identity of the culprit.

The cast threw out pithy one-liners left and right; the abundant references to pop culture and local Boston culture got the biggest laughs out of the audience. While giving a customer a shave, Tony commanded, “Give me a nice Rush Limbaugh!” and then explained, “That means turn to the far right.” Even more important than the lines was their enthusiastic delivery; all of the actors played their parts to near-perfection.

The aristocratic Mrs. Schubert was the perfect blue-blooded old woman, with a few interesting twists. Of her husband giving her an enormous diamond engagement ring, she said, “Yes. But it comes with a curse… Mr. Schubert.” Her slightest intonations and body movements managed to convey surprising and laugh-inducing information about her. She and Tony were the highlights of the show, most likely because they have been veterans of the production.

Although I enjoyed the show overall, I do have two significant reservations in my praise. The advertisements for the show led me to expect a lot more improvisation and audience interaction. The entire first act completely avoided audience involvement, and the latter half of the second act similarly deemphasized audience participation.

The murderer’s confession at the end of the show also disappointed me with its awkward and humorless deliverance. For a show that promised laughs and a good time, Shear Madness misstepped by taking the final scene too seriously. My friend and I left the theater uncomfortable and, as she put it, “a little creeped out.”

Still, the cast had wonderful dynamics amongst themselves and the audience; the majority of the play produced enough laughs that I would still recommend giving it a chance. Although tickets cost $42 for the average playgoer, you can use your student ID to obtain a 50 percent discount on tickets purchased at the box office.