Becoming a theater staple in any major city is no mean feat. Places like New York and Chicago have their own staples, some are tourist attractions and some were created specifically with the idea of continuing artistic education in mind. D.C is a tricky city in which to create theater mainstays. For one thing, there is not a lot of space or funding available for the arts. Situations like Ford’s Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol” or Drunk Shakespeare D.C. are one in a million and take tons of funding, time and patience to cultivate an audience. The success of “Shear Madness” is no accident. Opening in Boston in 1963, the whodunnit element and incredibly likable cast of characters made for a surefire hit, and the D.C. production of “Shear Madness” at The Kennedy Center has enjoyed over 17,800 performances. Today, the cast remains as strong as ever and the story pops with new verve and fresh gags.
…the cast remains as strong as ever and the story pops with new verve and fresh gags.
The D.C. branch of “Shear Madness” resides in The Theater Lab at The Kennedy Center, but don’t let the name fool you. Nothing about this show is an experiment. Despite the multiple storylines, there are several pieces of insulation in place to ensure the show doesn’t get too off the rails. The plot is simple. In a co-ed hair salon in Georgetown, the neighbor upstairs is murdered. Her name was Isabel Czerny and she was a former concert pianist and an all-around eccentric. The audience never sees this character as she is murdered offstage in Act 1. At the beginning of the show, we observe the hairdressers, Tony Whitcomb (Jordan Ahnquist) and Barbara DeMarco (Soneka Anderson) going about their business for the day. Tony cuts a character’s hair as Barbara prepares the salon for clients and we see several characters move in and out of the salon. Subsequently, Isabel Czerny begins to play a concert above the shop. One thing leads to another and Czerny winds up dead while two characters reveal themselves to be undercover cops.
Never fear, nothing that has been mentioned that qualifies as a spoiler as the real intrigue lies in the second half of the show in which the audience literally votes on who they think the killer is. “Shear Madness” is unique in that the two undercover cops played by Patrick Noonan and James Carlos Lacey count each vote gleaned from the audience. The finesse of this show lies in the many story lines that the cop (played by Noonan) must wrangle to keep the cast on track. When the fourth wall is broken at the end of Act 1, Noonan and Lacey field questions from the audience about the business that has gone on since the show has started. Noonan must bring any query from the audience back to a question that can be easily tracked by the cast and they must always be on their toes. Noonan was extremely impressive in how he managed to parse out key bits of information from each question to serve the play’s narrative.
The cast was excellent and the much of the comedy came from Jordan Ahnquist as Tony. This character requires a huge amount of energy and flexibility and Ahnquist’s line about “swallowing contacts” left the audience howling. Bruce Jordan and Bob Lohrmann’s direction was excellent. Though the characters often had their backs to the audience, we never felt as though any lines were lost. The gorgeous set designed by Kim Peter Kovac sparkled with 1950s teal and pink and made for the perfect playing space for a whodunit. The hair washing station facing away from the audience was particularly inspired.
There you have it! “Shear Madness” is one of the longest running plays in American theatre and has maintained all the pros and none of the cons associated with that title. It is nearly spotless. There was not a line flubbed or a cue missed, and yet, it is still as full of life as if it had opened this year. For fun and laughs for the whole family, go see “Shear Madness” and get ready to guffaw!
Running Time: Approximately two hours with one 15 minute intermission.
“Shear Madness” runs through September 29, 2024 at The Theater Lab in The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St Washington D.C, 20566. For more information and to purchase tickets, call The Box Office at 202-467-4600 or go online.