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Hair to absurdity – ‘Shear Madness’

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From left to right: Dominick Varney (AEA), Tony Larkin, Michelle Weatrerbee, Amy Roeder (AEA) & Brad LaBree in a scene from the Penobscot Theatre Company's production of "Shear Madness." From left to right: Dominick Varney (AEA), Tony Larkin, Michelle Weatrerbee, Amy Roeder (AEA) & Brad LaBree in a scene from the Penobscot Theatre Company's production of "Shear Madness." (photo courtesy PTC/© magnus stark, 2018)

BANGOR – Local theatergoers are being asked to pitch in and solve a hilarious whodunit.

Penobscot Theatre Company’s latest production is “Shear Madness,” adapted by Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan from Paul Portner’s “Scherenschnitt.” It’s a freewheeling comic mystery – one that makes great demands of both its cast and its audience – and it’s running at the Bangor Opera House through July 8.

Directed by Scott R.C. Levy, the play is an immersive and improvisational experience. A cast of half-a-dozen actors pulls the audience into a whirlwind of activity peppered with rapid-fire references – many of which are custom-built for our area. It’s smooth and speedy and goofy as all get out, with a campy charm that one can’t help but find engaging.

Tony Whitcomb (Dominick Varney) is the proprietor of the titular hair salon in Bangor. He runs Shear Madness with the help of his vixen of an assistant Barbara DeMarco (Michelle Weatherbee). The day starts off like any other, with a variety of customers making their way into the shop for their cuts and colors and whatnot.

There’s the shady antiques dealer Eddie Lawrence (Brad LaBree) and the socialite and salon regular Mrs. Shubert (Amy Roeder), but we’ve also got a gawky fellow named Mikey Thomas (Alekzander Sayers) and a construction worker named Nick O’Brien (Tony Larkin) who’s looking for a quick shave.

However, it soon becomes clear that just about everyone in Shear Madness this day has an ulterior motive. Suspicious activities abound; the entire place is filled with people who are not exactly what they seem. Suddenly – a scream! A body! A MURDER!

Upstairs, the building’s owner – Izabel Czerny, noted musician and legendary recluse – is discovered dead. And due to a set of convoluted and hilariously convenient circumstances, there are only a handful of possible culprits … the people who have spent this time in Shear Madness. But how to solve the mystery when so many people have exhibited such erratic behavior?

Well … that’s where you come in.

It turns out that law enforcement has been there all along. And they’re going to need help in determining who killed Izabel Czerny. And so, audience members are invited to ask questions of law enforcement during the intermission, to share their theories and suspicions about who among the suspects might be the killer. Post-intermission, we are given carte blanche to questions the suspects ourselves; the interrogation is steered by the officers onstage, but it is the people in the seats who are doing the heavy lifting. Over the course of this questioning, a prime suspect emerges. An arrest is made and the show comes to an end.

But here’s the thing – your questioning literally determines the ending of the show, rather than the other way around. This means that the ending I see one night could be different from the one you see the next night and so on. My killer isn’t necessarily your killer … which is pretty killer.

“Shear Madness” is one of those shows of which I’ve been aware for years, but had never actually seen. It’s a very different sort of theatergoing experience, with a gleeful breakdown of the fourth wall and a wonderful willingness to immerse the audience utterly in the narrative. Most audience interactivity serves to surround the audience, but it’s rare for a show to genuinely invite the viewer to actively participate in the process.

(This is where I note that I’m generally not a huge fan of audience interaction; to my mind, it has to be done exceptionally well for it to truly work. I mention this because this group does in fact do it exceptionally well.)

Right off the top, it feels safe to say that I haven’t seen many crowds having as much flat-out fun as the one with which I saw “Shear Madness” on opening night. Hands were shooting into the air left and right as people were embracing the opportunity to ask their questions and share their thoughts. There was a low hum of excited murmuring throughout the show’s second act; even the people who weren’t emboldened to shout out their thoughts were giddily sharing them with their seatmates.

Finding the right way to not only develop that kind of energy, but properly harness it, is a daunting task. That’s one of the reasons why directors who helm this show are required to go through a certification process; it’s a delicate balance that requires both a precise knowledge of the script and a special brand of flexibility with regards to that knowledge. Levy’s clearly got plenty of both; the former PTC artistic director has made a triumphant return to Bangor with this one. Making this show feel genuinely organic has to be difficult, but Levy and company make it look easy.

Speaking of the company – it’s a hell of a cast, awash in the special brand of confidence that comes when an ensemble has worked through a complex process and come to truly trust one another. As Tony, Varney is the dynamic central figure around which the other characters orbit. He serves as a fulcrum of sorts, allowing the narrative’s myriad parts to move freely. His energy dictates the proceedings with a hilarious clarity. Weatherbee gives Barbara a Jersey Shore femme fatale vibe, leaning into the cartoonish while still somehow remaining grounded. LaBree is engagingly sleazy; you can almost see an oil-slick rainbow shimmer surrounding him.

Roeder manages to find the perfect amounts of both hoity and toity in her performance as Mrs. Shubert; there’s a comedic imperiousness to her that is just delightful. Sayers is awkward and off-balance in all the right ways; he’s extremely likable even as he exudes an air of ineffectuality. It makes for a beautiful interplay with Larkin, whose broad, personable Nick is the one who serves to steer the ship as far as the interrogation is concerned. Watching him play traffic cop in that manner is impressive – particularly when he makes it look so effortless.

Broken record time: the production values are once again outstanding. The scenic design of Tricia Hobbs, the lighting work of Scout Hough, Kevin Koski’s costumes, Katie Guzzi’s sound, Meredith Perry’s props – it all comes together to create a space that meets the many demands a show like this one places upon it. My mom was a hair stylist, so I know what salons look like … and they look like Shear Madness.

“Shear Madness” isn’t your typical theatrical experience, but it is one that is absolutely a cut above. So don’t wait too long to see for yourself – don’t cut and run. You’ll want to curl up and dye if you miss it. It’s like they say – hair today, gone tomorrow.

Last modified on Wednesday, 20 June 2018 10:25

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