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Home » ARTS AND CULTURE in MA » MASSACHUSETTS (all topics) » Shear Madness Doesn’t Quit
(L to R) Jordan Ahnquist, Jennifer Ellis, Nick Rosetti, Mary Klug, Patrick Shea and Jonathon Popp in Shear Madness
Shear Madness Doesn’t Quit

By Pippin Ross | January 21, 2011

Pippin Ross investigates the ongoing appeal of the longest running, non-musical in American theater history.

The Stage

Unless it’s got the lifespan of Hamlet or* A Street Car Named Desire*, and a playwright of historic proportion of Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams, a play’s name generally doesn’t stick in the average brain-pan for decades. So why is it that if you live in these parts, you know about a play called Shear Madness?

Admit it, maybe you’ve never seen the Boston-based show, but you’ve heard the name. Why? Longevity. Shear Madness is the longest running, non-musical in American theater history.

And no, it’s not a typo. It’s shear as in hair - not sheep - which is because the entire 90 minute show transpires in a (fictional) Newbury Street hair salon. Before explaining how Shear Madness became a New England institution as entrenched as Boston’s colleges and hospitals, here’s the theatrical Cliff Notes:

A prototype of a flamboyant gay guy, Tony, owns and operates the Shear Madness Unisex Hair Styling Salon. He and his co-worker Barbara make the shop a cauldron of flaming gossip pumped with Three Stooges-style antics.   Their ‘regular’ is an elderly, entrenched Boston Brahmin named Mrs. Shubert.

To sustain the plot are Mikey, Eddie, and Nick, and a character with a strangely vague and evolving identity. The plot centers around the murder of a concert pianist who lives on the floor above the salon, and is an annoying and perpetual source of classical music interrupting the salon’s disco flow. Needless to say, the mystery must be solved. What makes Shear Madness incredibly entertaining?

The audience solves the plot.

(L to R) Jordan Ahnquist, Mary Klug, Jennifer Ellis, and Patrick Shea

The idea for Shear Madness began in the mid-70’s between two actors - Bruce Jordan and Marylyn Abrams - working the Adirondacks summer theater circuit. Jordan stumbled upon a dark German production called Scherenschnitt, a play involving a unisex salon, a concert pianist’s murder, and a plot about the very different ways people perceive the same reality.   Jordan and Abrams borrowed the basic idea and injected it with huge doses of humor , improv, and audience participation. It worked so well on the notoriously picky Adirondack circuit, they bought the rights to the play, and moved it to Boston.

The fact that it’s thirty years old doesn’t make it a journey back to the 1980’s.

“That’s the value of improv,” says associate director and cast member, Christopher Tarjan. “We add and dump dialogue in every single performance.”

In fact, at a recent performance, within about five minutes of dialogue, there’s a reference to the TV series Glee, Wiki Leaks, and Congressman John Baynor.   The only obvious ‘age’ in the play is the Vaudevillian style and pace of comedic exchanges among the six person cast who are almost always on stage en masse, within feet of the club-style seated audience that surrounds them. The dialogue is SNL caliber goofy: “I know my constipational rights!” barks Mrs. Shubert as the mystery brews. A line that’s followed by a slew of misnomers:

“Are you going to drag me out in cufflinks?”

“She was murdered to death!”

“He’s a genital liar!”

“You have a photogenic memory.”

“You’re guilty of accessorizing!”

Left View of the Stage

(To borrow a line…) It’s not rocket surgery, it’s not even brilliant theater. So what has made it pump out 12,500 performances in Boston? The audience. Literally. As soon as the murder becomes a mystery, the audience is brought in to help.

“We have never had an audience go silent on us. We’ve had nights with 14 people and the show rips because the audience seems to naturally love getting a chance to do more than just watch,” says stage manager, Bates Wilder. That requires the cast to respond and interact with audience input, which pumps up the talent ratio as they improv responses in pretty much every way imaginable. The audience offers the mystery’s ultimate solution. How? Can’t tell ya.   Go see for yourself.

Shear Madness has probably had such sustenance to be translated into fifteen languages and maintain two decades of shows in Washington D.C. because it’s simply good entertainment. You sit around little tables within feet of the stage, and a bar behind you. You laugh at least once a minute.

The actors are high energy, and you get to be part of the performance.

Who wouldn’t like that?


Charles Playhouse

74 Warrenton Street, Boston, MA 02116

(617) 426-5225

Shear Madness Website

Performance Information:

Tue - Fri: 8PM

Sat: 6PM & 9PM

Sun: 3PM & 7PM

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