‘Shear’-ly a great time!

Jenn Orr
Journal Staff

Described as “Boston’s hilarious whodunit,” Shear Madness is not your typical night at the theatre. Nor is it your typical idea of theatre, as it follows a somewhat loose script that changes with each performance. Ultimately, it is a show that just can’t seem to get old, even though it is the longest-running non-musical play in the history of American Theatre.

So how do they do it? How has Shear Madness continued to sell out performances since Bruce Jordan and Marilyn Abrams first opened it in January 1980? The answer is simple: every show, every single performance, is different from the last. Constant reinvention is what keeps things interesting, and that same reinvention is why the show is worth seeing more than once or twice (or three times… it’s that good).

The show is set in Shear Madness, a vintage-tacky hair salon in Boston located below the apartment of an elderly classical pianist, Isabelle Czerny. After a bit of background story-telling and joke-cracking, the audience learns that Isabelle was murdered (death by shears) just minutes ago and that every one of the six characters on stage had a reason to eliminate her. After the fact, the audience becomes the seventh member of the cast – the main witness of the crime.

“If we didn’t have the interaction, it wouldn’t be the same show,” said cast member Nick Caruso. “The audience is what makes Shear Madness what it really is.”

With the audience participation comes a great deal of fun and even more improvisation on stage. Steps are retraced, questions are asked by audience members, and everyone tries to solve the murder mystery. Seems like dark stuff, but the many up-to-date references and wise-cracks interspersed throughout the show are what gives it comic illumination.

And the people behind this improvised hilarity are director Bruce Jordan and the cast members: Jordan Ahnquist (Tony), Jennifer Ellis (Barbara), Patrick Shea (Eddie), Mary Klug (Mrs. Shubert), Jonathan Popp (Nick), and Nick Caruso (Mikey). Every cast member comes up with relevant bits to throw into each show, so all make sure they keep up on current events and pop culture, and it certainly shows. The Oct. 14 performance included references to Brett Favre and being discreet, Chilean miners and a broom closet, and a personal favorite mention of Isabelle Czerny and her career as a pianist: “She took Viagara because she thought it made old pianists perform better. It worked, because she’d lasted four hours.”

Both the show’s dialogue and its cast are constantly in rotation; the dialogue everyday, the cast every 13 weeks. Cast members also switch roles with one another, so one night Pat Shea (who has been on board since 1983) might play Eddie and the next night Tony. This keeps things fun and interesting for the cast, all of whom are accomplished and versatile actors.

Jordan Ahnquist, who currently plays the ultra-fabulous, stud-loving hairdresser Tony, is a perfect example of how flexible the actors in Shear Madness really are. He started out as Mikey, one of the Boston detectives trying to uncover Isabelle’s murderer, and now plays Tony, who on any given night could be the perpetrator.

“The role of Tony is a lot more work, but it’s a lot more fun and you get a little leeway,” Ahnquist said. “I also like playing Mikey because we have some really talented people who also play Tony, like Pat Shea who played Eddie tonight. So when I played Mikey it was fun to just kind of soak up what everyone else was doing. And also Mikey… to figure out how to have fun in that smaller role is really fun too, to have you pick your moments. I find joy in that.”

Between the up-to-date references, the extremity of the characters, and the versatility of the actors, Shear Madness can be described as the live uncle version of shows like “30 Rock.” It is fresh, it is fun, and it gives the audience an opportunity to shine.

When asked if Shear Madness is a new (albeit 30 years old) means of keeping comedy spontaneous and alive, Pat Shea replied saying, “That’s the highest compliment you can pay to Shear Madness to say, ‘Do you think Shear Madness is the new way to keep comedy alive?’”

Yes, Pat Shea, I absolutely do.