Theater Review: “Shear Madness” at the Kennedy Center
Even after more than 27 years worth of performances, the Kennedy Center’s production of “Shear Madness” still manages to be fresh and entertaining.
The cast — which features two AU alumni — keeps the audience on edge as they try to figure out who committed the heinous murder of the wealthy upstairs neighbor of a hair salon. Upon entering the Kennedy Center Theater Lab on Feb. 25, the audience is immediately placed in the swinging sixties. Flashy bubblegum pop music plays loudly in the background and it’s impossible not to be entranced by the gaudy turquoise and pink salon on stage. Everything starts out normal enough, with customers arriving at the Shear Madness salon to get a shave or haircut, but things quickly spiral out of control.
“Shear Madness” is a “whodunit” that relies on audience participation to find and charge the murderer of Isabel Czerny, a famed pianist who lives above the salon. For the first half of the performance the audience observes carefully, and then the two police officers ask the audience to help reconstruct the events preceding and following the murder. Finally, based on their observations, the audience votes on who they believe committed the crime.
The star of the show is Michael Litchfield, an AU alum, who portrays the flamboyant and flirty character Tony Whitcomb, the owner of the Shear Madness Salon. Tony’s quick wit and persistent flirting with both of the undercover cops, as well as his concerning incompetence at giving a proper shave and making goulash, make him endearing. There was no way anyone would ever implicate such a friendly and goofy character in the murder of his upstairs neighbor and landlady.
The other scene-stealer is Nick DePinto with his portrayal of Eddie Lawrence, the greasy, seedy, “used” antiques dealer who is suspicious from the start. Once the fourth wall is broken and the audience is brought in to help solve the murder, he continues to lie through his teeth about where he was and what he had been doing. Even his intentional deceit is endearing and he makes himself almost too suspicious to be the real suspect.
The two female members of the cast also give very strong performances. Barbara DeMarco, the other employee at Shear Madness, is portrayed by Nora Palka. She’s suspicious from the start: having a strangely close relationship with Isabelle, sharing kisses and secrets with Eddie and disposing of bloody gloves as well as a pair of shears, which was the murder weapon. Palka, however, manages to make Barbara relatable despite being an airheaded floozy. Mrs. Shubert, the other female suspect, is portrayed by veteran actress Maureen Kerrigan. Kerrigan’s portrayal of Shubert as a spoiled and high-maintenance crone is entertaining and well done.
Although the cast as a whole put on an excellent production, the weak link is Adi Stein, another AU alum, who portrays the character Mike Thomas, one of the two undercover cops. His character never manages to stand out, and he fits too well into the cliché, awkward neurotic male mold. Actor Joe Mallon’s portrayal of the other undercover cop, Nick O’Brien, is far better. His performance of the brash and bungling cop whose intelligence is at times questionable but at other times surprising is funny and fresh.
Palka’s portrayal of Barbara as a pitiful, desperate woman is easy to sympathize with and is excellent. Isabelle had taken Barbara under her wing and made promises to make Barbara the sole inheritor of her wealth, so when Isabelle began to act callously towards Barbara and reneged on her promise, Barbara was so hurt and overcome with rage that it became a crime of passion.
“Shear Madness” manages to stay fresh even after all of these years through its use of current events and politics as fodder for jokes in the show, making the humor different each time. The use of audience participation to direct the investigation and eventually implicate the murderer gives the show numerous possible endings, so it’s certainly worth seeing more than once. “Shear Madness” will continue to play regularly at the Kennedy Center Theater Lab until the end of June.