NEW YORK (AP) — Actors like to think their show is different every night, but the folks at “Shear Madness” really aren’t exaggerating.
Heavy audience participation means this beauty-parlor murder mystery can go anywhere at any given time. Theatergoers ask questions and eventually choose the murderer.
The setting is a hair salon and the victim is an eccentric concert pianist who is never seen. The suspects include Tony, the tart-tongued hairdresser; Barbara, the hard-as-nails manicurist; Mrs. Shubert, the rich matron who could be concealing dirty doings; and Eddie, a suspicious dealer in antiques.
Two police officers try to unravel the mystery. All the actors must memorize the 185-page script, one-third of which is possible questions the audience might ask.
The show, celebrating its 38th year, made its off-Broadway debut last year at New World Stages, and we thought it only fair that we ask the cast and creators some questions.
HOW DID THIS MADNESS START?
Creators Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan have proved that eye witnesses shouldn’t be trusted. “It all started out as an exercise in how people perceive the events around a crime and how wrong they are about it,” says Jordan, who also directs. “When you have 200 people in the audience, some of them will say, ‘Yes, that happened’ and the others will say, ‘No, that didn’t happen then.’ So it’s very illustrative as far as how good witnesses are to something. I think they provide a lot of the humor just in that alone.”
CAN ACTORS SUBTELY IMPLY WHO IS GUILTY?
No, says Jeremy Kushnier, who plays the suspicious antiques dealer and is often declared the bad guy. “There’s absolutely no way for you to shift it. It’s so dependent on what questions are asked and who asked the questions and what order they’re asked and what people are feeling that day,” he says. “I’ll seem a little guiltier here or I’ll be a little more charming here and nothing works. You never know.”
HAVE YOU BEEN SURPRISED BY A QUESTION?
Patrick Noonan, who plays the lead police officer and who has been with the show on and off since 1998, said he still gets queries that make him think twice. “I can still be flummoxed but when I’m flummoxed I know enough to act like I’m not being flummoxed,” he says. “The lion doesn’t know that the lion tamer is a lot weaker than the lion. That’s really what it is. The audience can overpower me whenever they want. I just act like they can’t.”
WHAT’S THE KEY TO PERFORMING IT?
“The key is not to let it get away from you,” says Kate Middleton, who plays Barbara. “It is brilliantly crafted and what makes it even more brilliantly crafted is that the audience has no idea how smart it actually is. We know because we got the script.”
HAS PLAYING THE ROLE HELPED IN ANY WAY?
At a recent audition for a different part, Adam Gerber, who plays the junior officer, didn’t lose his cool when his scene partner couldn’t find his line. “Instinctually, I was able to come in with an improv that worked for where it was without thinking, ‘Oh, what am I going to do?’ And I completely give credit to this show for doing that,” he says. “I am more comfortable being prepared for whatever comes.”
HOW HAS THE SHOW CHANGED IN THREE DECADES?
“Over time, the country has gotten a lot more P.C. We can’t do some jokes that we could have done 10, 15 years ago,” says Noonan. That’s particularly true about the role of Tony, who is gay. “It was much more dangerous to be gay. It was much more dangerous to flirt with a straight cop. That danger has dissipated over the years.”
BE HONEST, RICH LADY. ARE YOU THE MURDERER?
No, says Lynne Wintersteller, who plays Mrs. Shubert. “Really, this is beneath me. I would never do a murder and I would never do a murder this sloppy if I did. She probably would hire someone to murder someone. She has the money for a hit man. Why would she get her hands dirty?”
WHO COMES TO SEE THE SHOW?
Everyone, says Jordan Ahnquist, who plays Tony. He sees tourists from Japan or bachelorette parties from the Midwest or New York fathers with their sons. “To me, that is one of the main reasons why you do theater: Get a bunch of people together, breathing the same air, who might not normally be sitting together and somehow kind of create a connection among everybody.”