Review: ‘Shear Madness’ at The Kennedy Center’s Theatre Lab

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Let’s face it: things have been a little stressful lately. Everywhere we turn we see violence, corruption, investigations, allegations. Shear Madness, a long-running (over 13,200 performances and counting since 1987!), campy, interactive murder mystery at The Kennedy Center’s Theatre Lab, doesn’t cry about the state of our country; it dives headfirst into it with groan-inducing results, evoking laughter that has been desperately missing from our society. However, be warned: if there is a stereotype to play, they play it. If there is a pun, they punt it. If there is potential for physical comedy, they find it. Enter at your own risk.

Former cast members Danny Bernardy, Aaron Shields, Soneka Anderson, and BrigidCleary in Shear Madness at the Kennedy Center. Photo by Margot Schulman.
Former cast members Danny Bernardy, Aaron Shields, Soneka Anderson, and Brigid Cleary in Shear Madness at the Kennedy Center. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Shear Madness originated in Lake George, NY in the 1970s as the brainchild of two friends, Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan, who acquired the rights for a murder mystery originally titled Scherenschnitt, written by German playwright Paul Pörtner, and turned it into a comedy. From there, Shear Madness moved to Boston and then to Washington, DC; the show is still running in both cities. The current production boasts two full casts, each with select performances. Additionally, understudies frequently go on, which was the case when this reviewer attended. Therefore, one cannot attend a production assuming the same cast in this review will be present on the stage. What one can assume, however, is that these actors are a well-oiled, shampooed machine.

Brad Letson played Tony Whitcomb, the quintessential gay salon owner. Letson is saddled with all of the political jabs and politically incorrect humor, and he handles it all without dwelling on the groans heard from the audience. He makes physical comedy look easy, and he handles it all seamlessly without losing focus on his character, the dialogue, or the scene. His interaction with the audience during the murder investigation was “Saturday Night Live” funny. Aaron Shields appeared as Nick O’Brien, the cop who leads the audience into the murder investigation while keeping the action going on-stage. This role requires patience, balance, and a lot of improv, and Shields could not have handled it better.

Zack Powell was Eddie Lawrence, whose fresh, smarmy face incurred some of the biggest laughs of the evening, though his dialogue isn’t written to steal the scene. Powell was born with a sarcastic spoon in his mouth, and he uses it to serve us some delicious moments.

Soneka Anderson, as salon employee Barbara DeMarco, shines when she is off-the-cuff with her fellow actors and interacting with the audience. Her comic timing is best when she isn’t trying to deliver a specific line, but rather is embodying the character in an improv moment. Mrs. Shubert, a wealthy socialite customer, is played by Cornelia Hart, who never saw a deadpan line she didn’t like. Her characterization is campy yet grounded, anchoring the whole cast while raising the bar. Hart is clearly seasoned and knows how to create a real character in the most unreal of circumstances.

Former cast members Brigid Cleary and Danny Bernardy in Shear Madness at the Kennedy Center. Photo by Margot Schulman.
Former cast members Brigid Cleary and Danny Bernardy in Shear Madness at the Kennedy Center. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The production values, from the perfectly-timed sound effects to the garish salon decor reminiscent of the inside of a cotton candy machine, add to the ambiance of playful slapstick. The pre-show medley of Top 40 hits from the ’50s to the ’80s had the audience and actors dancing in their respective aisles. The music anchored the pre-show action, ten minutes’ worth of shampooing customers, taking phone calls, cutting hair, and dancing. The physical comedy and lack of dialogue on stage during this time is very entertaining and leads seamlessly into the top of the show.

During intermission, Shields invited people to the lobby to talk with him about their theories of the crime while the rest of the actors stayed on stage and talked to audience members as they approached. Audience members are in for a memorable intermission experience because they directly contribute to not only the theories being bandied about, but to the actual conclusion of the show, which relies on an audience vote to choose the killer.

The show is riddled with political jokes of the day, lobbing a few at the current White House and some at the past. The funniest came from Letson, as Whitcomb describes his two cats, Bill and Hillary, trapped in a fire in his apartment. “I told her, ‘Run Hillary run, run again!’ And there was Bill, chasing tail just like he always does.”

It is an interesting dichotomy that, as it is done over time, Shear Madness incorporates current political humor and pop culture in order to remain relevant and fresh, yet holds on to dialogue and stereotypes that are decidedly outdated and have not seemingly changed since the day the play was written. Case in point are the gay jokes directed at and delivered by Whitcomb. He walks with his palms down, one leg kicked up, biting his hand whenever a man stands within 20 feet as if he cannot stand another moment with this hunk of flesh in the same room. The stereotype of gay men not being able to keep their pants on makes the subpar “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy of the 1990s seem like progressivism. On the flip side, Barbara DeMarco exclaims to Tony, “You’re such a stereotype!” to which he replies, “I’m not a stereotype! I WAS a stereotype but this is 20-gay-teen! I’m trending!” This repartee is not post-DOMA material, but it is clearly intended for today’s audience.

One could argue that it is overkill to politically analyze what is supposed to be a farcical and ridiculous show, which leads this writer to suggest the following: leave your activism hat at home, enter the world of cotton candy walls and Top 40 hits, and you’ll get your money’s worth. Go see Shear Madness with the understanding that this is not a politically correct or even politically updated show, and you will have a blast.

Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

Shear Madness performances are ongoing at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Lab, 2700 F Street, NW Washington, DC. For tickets and information, call (202) 467-4600 or go online.