A Review of Shear Madness

by Gerry Roe

Amana – Returning to Old Creamery Theatre’s main stage after an excellent production in the 2015 season, Shear Madness has retained all but one of last year’s cast members and provides an opportunity for Tom Schwans to return to the OCT company. As a former member and Associate Artistic Director of the company, he could be expected to fit in with the five returning actors and he does, just as skilled at ad libs and improvisation as any company member. This is finely tuned comedy, especially when we consider that it is never the same play twice. I had the good fortune to see it last year, and yes, there are familiar lines, basic plot situations, but I suspect that one could see it many times and never succumb to boredom. Especially if the actors are as skilled as those on view at OCT right now.

The situation is quickly understood. Tony Whitcomb (Sean McCall, who also directed) and Barbara DeMarco (Jackie McCall), run a hairstyling salon prophetically called Shear Madness. A floor above is a former concert pianist who after some years of inactivity following a breakdown is preparing for a comeback. She plays the piano very well and very loudly, which is especially annoying to Tony, whose taste runs to rock and roll and to the “boys” in the band. Tony is stereotypically light in his shoes with mincing gait, fluttering hands, and a predilection for doubles entendres which in his mind clearly transform to single unmistakable meanings.

Mikey Thomas (Josh Cahn) is the first customer of the day. He gets a shampoo, rinse, conditioner(?) enthusiastically performed by Tony and Barbara, followed by a trim and a quick flashing of a hand mirror to keep him somewhat in the dark about his cut. Eddie Lawrence (Jeff Hafner) comes in for something—his bald head leaves us wondering about his purpose. Additionally, we meet Nick O’Btien, who wants a shave, and Mrs. Shubert (Marquetta Senters) who needs her frowsy hair washed and set in preparation for a trip she plans.

Now that we have met the entire cast, it is time to say something about the dialogue and the ad libs. The play is designed to include local references (Mikey Thomas and Nick O’Brien, for example, are From the Cedar Rapids police department). And there are political references, too, including the Republican and Democratic nominees, all the way to city council actions or non-actions and numerous references to the Amana colonies and their inhabitants. As a general rule, these local references are fairly gentle, serving mainly to set the location of the play in Iowa. No references are made to Iowa stubbornness as in The Music Man.

Each customer reveals some flaw. Mrs. Shubert is somewhat light-fingered, capturing a spray (and a bottle) of perfume, Eddie Lawrence is involved in blackmail, and the two policemen seem occasionally to have wandered in from The Keystone Kops, and are frequently given to Spoonerisms. In each case the actors incorporate these weaknesses so thoroughly into their characters that it is nearly always forgivable.

Then the senior police officer O’Brien (Tom Schwans) has the lights come up on the audience to have the opportunity to question the suspects, ultimately voting by a show of hands on the murderer who has dispatched the pianist. Mrs. Schubert (the amazing Marquetta Senters) sends comic glares at questioners and voters alike, reminding us that any show is better for her presence. The questioning is continued over the intermission (O’Brien invites questions in the lobby).

It is one of the delights of this play that the audience at each performance chooses the perpetrator. It may not be the greatest tribute to our justice system, but it is funny. Each of the performances I have seen, last year and the current production, chose a different murderer who then reveals more about the motivation and modus operandi of the crime. But never mind the serious crime of homicide—the show is beautifully acted and directed, and it is very, very funny.

If you are wondering about the quality of the play, just remember that it has been running continuously at The Kennedy Center for nearly 30 years. Go see it (at least once) during its current run which continues through August 28. And be prepared to laugh.

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