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Hair apparent! - Former PTC artistic director returns to helm “Shear Madness”

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The cast of "Shear Madness." From left: Tony Larkin, Brad LaBree, Amy Roeder, Dominick Varney, Michelle Weatherbee & Alek Sayers. The cast of "Shear Madness." From left: Tony Larkin, Brad LaBree, Amy Roeder, Dominick Varney, Michelle Weatherbee & Alek Sayers. (photo courtesy PTC/© magnus stark, 2018)

BANGOR – A former Penobscot Theatre Company stalwart has returned to Bangor to bring a long-beloved theatrical experience to life on the Bangor Opera House stage.

Former PTC artistic director Scott R.C. Levy has made his way back to the Queen City to direct a production of “Shear Madness,” adapted from a 1963 German murder mystery by Paul Portner by Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan. The madcap and improvisational comedy is one of the longest running nonmusical plays in the world, having been running nonstop in Boston since January of 1980. The PTC production is scheduled to run from June 14 through July 8.

“Shear Madness” is the latest entry in current PTC artistic director Bari Newport’s ongoing summer programming strategy – a surprise seventh show announced after the theater’s six show season is released. In the past, these have been musical offerings – “Rock of Ages,” “The Full Monty” – but this summer, it’s all about letting your hair down for some laughs.

Oh, and you’ll play a part as well.

You see, the action in “Shear Madness” isn’t as set in stone as it is in most plays. There’s a significant degree of improvisation, along with plenty of audience interaction. In fact, it is the people in the seats who are tasked with helping to solve the sinister crime at the heart of the story. What crime is that, you ask?

Murder. Murder most foul!

Here’s the deal – the show is set in a unisex hair salon. The landlady who lives above the shop is mysteriously killed offstage. The characters involved include a … let’s call him flamboyant … hair dresser and his assistant, who’s a bit of an airheaded flirt. You’ve also got the prim, nosy older lady and a maybe-shady antiques dealer and some law enforcement types. All of them determined to solve the murder (except – perhaps – the murderer).

But they can’t do it without your help.

The audience members hear clues and question suspects, engaging with the performers as they maintain character. Through that process – one that can go in any number of different directions at any time (as anyone who has experienced a show with audience interaction already well knows) – we collectively arrive at a conclusion. In short, the audience votes for the ending … and that’s the ending they get.

And really, that’s a huge part of the appeal of “Shear Madness” – not to mention its staying power. While the basic structure remains the same, what actually happens is always changing. That sense of ever-shifting possibilities can be intoxicating for an audience. More than almost any other PTC production in recent memory, this one invites (and likely rewards) multiple viewings.

The talented ensemble – featuring local favorites Dominick Varney, Amy Roeder, Brad LaBree, Michelle Weatherbee and Alek Sayers and returning guest artist Tony Larkin (last seen in PTC’s 2015 holiday offering “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play”) – are the ones to help us determine who among might be a murderer … with a little help from the people in the seats.

The show also serves as a return to the PTC fold for Levy, whose six-year tenure as the theater’s artistic director ran from the fall of 2005 through the spring of 2011. His accomplishments were many, including a reinvigoration of the theater’s educational offerings and the spearheading of the major renovation project that led to the refurbishing of the marquee and façade of the Bangor Opera House.

Levy, who has been at the helm of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center since leaving PTC, is thrilled to be back in his old stomping grounds.

“It’s funny – at this point, I’ve been gone [from Bangor] longer than I was here,” Levy said with a chuckle. “It’s really good to be back. A lot has changed … and a lot hasn’t. It’s wonderful.”

Levy has been hard at work in Colorado, producing and directing shows for the CSFAC and establishing new partnerships – the facility has had a working agreement with Colorado College for a number of years now, for just one example. He’s put together a vast and varied selection of productions over the years … including a version of “Shear Madness.”

The success of that particular production led to a bit of synchronicity when PTC artistic directors past and present came together again.

“Bari [Newport] came out to see us in Colorado a couple of years back,” Levy said. “And I suggested to her that I thought ‘Shear Madness’ could be a great show to do in Bangor.”

Here’s the thing about “Shear Madness” – the folks in charge are VERY productive of the brand. As they should be; shows don’t run for 40 years if they’re not worth handling with care. Part of the deal with mounting this show is that any director has to be certified to do so. And since Levy had directed the show in Colorado already …

“One of the deals is that the director of the show has to be certified to do so,” said Levy. “And I was – I went to Washington and watched that production a number of times and got the go-ahead to direct it myself. So when Bari decided to do it, rather than going out and trying to find someone new who was willing and able to direct it, she asked me.”

It’s a process that is both easier and more difficult than your typical production. This show makes a lot of demands of its actors – “Shear Madness” requires comedic timing and flexibility far beyond the usual. Finding comfort with the interplay between actor and audience is a significant task as well. On the other hand, it’s not a particularly challenging show in terms of the technical aspects, thanks to the single location nature of the story.

Adding to the high-wire nature of the endeavor is the fact that the rehearsal process has been stripped down a bit from the usual situation at PTC. Rehearsals began the Sunday before Memorial Day, with tech taking place just this past weekend. You do the math.

No? You don’t want to do the math? Well, allow me … from first rehearsal to first preview was less than three weeks – 19 days, to be exact. Suffice it to say, that’s not a lot of turnaround time.

“The actors have been working very hard,” Levy said. “But they’ve been doing a great job, really investing in what they’re trying to accomplish.”

It really is a daunting task set forth for these performers. Acting and improvising are complementary skills, but there are distinct differences; they’re similar, but not the same. And being proficient at one by no means guarantees proficiency at the other. There just aren’t that many people who can bring together those two skills sets night after night.

The ensemble assembled for this production would seem to be up to the task. A number of them have been involved in the area’s burgeoning improv scene for a while; some are highly trained. All have at least a little improvisatory experience; some have a great deal. In a show that opens itself up to the unknown in such a constant way, those skills are obviously vitally important.

But the craft that goes into breathing life into the words on a page – that needs to be here as well. These characters have lived full lives on the stage; versions of these people have been treading boards all over the world for nearly four decades. There’s a truth that is owed to such roles – a truth that can only be elicited through honesty and integrity on the stage.

If this sounds a little overimportant for what is, in the end, a silly interactive whodunit, well … maybe it is. But here’s the thing – nothing stays this relevant for this long without a VERY good reason. “Shear Madness” is a goofy little comedy, kitschy and shtick-laden and ridiculous … and beloved.

(Note: Speaking of love, this is where I insert a reference to my own tangential connection to “Shear Madness.” Specifically, the Boston production. A friend of mine actually worked there as part of the sales team back in the early 1990s. While there, she met her husband, who also worked there on the administrative side of things. They got married and had a couple of beautiful kids. And they never would have even met if it weren’t for the existence of this show. Those kids ought to write “Shear Madness” a thank you note.)

Levy believes that area theatergoers will also find plenty to love about “Shear Madness.”

“I have no doubt that the people here are going to love this show,” he said. “It’s a chance to get out and laugh and just generally have a fabulous time at the theater.”

Bari Newport’s goal with the addition of this seventh show is to give audiences the opportunity to have some real summer fun at the theater. It was a bold move – this stretch is among the loveliest weather we get, meaning that people maybe are looking for more outdoor fun. But it seems as though the gamble has paid off thus far, with the past musical selections proving wildly popular.

Sure, you can’t sing along with “Shear Madness,” but one could argue that you get the chance to do something even better – you get to PLAY along. YOU are part of the show. YOU are making the choices that decide the outcome. YOU are interacting with the action. “Shear Madness” is about a lot of things, but most importantly, it is about YOU.

As for those of you disappointed at the dearth of hair-related puns and references in this story, rest assured that I’m simply saving them all for next week’s review.

(For tickets or more information about the Penobscot Theatre Company production of “Shear Madness,” running June 14 through July 8, you can pay a visit the PTC website at www.penobscottheatre.org or call the box office at 942-3333. You can also find out more by following PTC on Facebook.)

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Some Shear history

“Shear Madness” began as the brainchild of Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan, who met in the summer of 1976 while performing dinner theater in upstate New York. Their friendship extended beyond the summer, so when Jordan stumbled upon the German psychodrama “Scherenschitt” and was intrigued by its baseline premise – an offstage murder being solved by interactions between six onstage characters and the audience.

The play that would become “Shear Madness” first saw the stage at that same dinner theater in 1978, opening with little more than a basic script. It wasn’t long before the show began to evolve, becoming a show that changed every time it was performed. The actors followed the same basic format, but some of the specifics shifted and changed depending on the particulars of an evening. The drama became comedy as audiences were swept up into the joy of trying to solve this absurd crime.

“Shear Madness” first hit the stage at Boston’s Charles Playhouse Stage II in January of 1980 for what was initially intended to be a brief run. It has been there ever since; in 2009, the show marked its 30th anniversary. Next year, it will mark its 40th. A second production – this one at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. – launched in August of 1987. Much more recently, a third ongoing production was mounted at the New World Stages Off-Broadway theater in New York City; this one took its inaugural bow in November of 2015.

Of course, those are just the productions that are continuously running. “Shear Madness” has proven to be a popular offering all over the country and beyond. According to their numbers, the play has received some 50 productions in the United States and has been translated into over 20 languages, playing in cities across the globe – Barcelona and Buenos Aires, Paris and Rome, Melbourne and Seoul and so on and so forth.

By their count, over 12 million people have experienced “Shear Madness.” And now Bangor theatergoers get to add themselves to that number.

Last modified on Tuesday, 12 June 2018 19:03

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