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Shear Madness is retro, but not rewarding

Adapted by Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan from the original play Scherenschnitt, (scissors cut), by German playwright Paul Pörtner, Shear Madness is not so much a fully realized work of comic theater as a kind of silly party game writ large. The premise is reminiscent of interactive murder mysteries: setting—a beauty salon; characters—a brace of stereotypes (gay hair dresser, ditsy beautician, bulldog homicide detective); McGuffin—the murder of an upstairs neighbor. But the real mystery is why we should care about the death of a character we never meet. This is theater for people who don’t know much about theater, and comedy for audiences drunk enough to laugh at anything. (The snack bar serves alcohol that you can take into the auditorium.)

The current Mercury Theater Chicago revival, directed by Warner Crocker, is by design tipsy and “fun.” Actors break character all the time, ad lib ad nauseum, or fake cracking up (like the late Harvey Korman used to do way too often on The Carol Burnett Show). And then about halfway through it all the fourth wall is ripped down, and the audience is invited to “participate” in the “solving” of the “murder.” I suppose this kind of thing must have seemed daring in 1963, when Pörtner’s original play opened. But today the premise is too tired to even be called retro. There is nothing novel about Crocker’s point-and-click direction.

Still, the casting is great. In the leads, Ed Kross and Brittany D. Parker get lots of chances to show off their comic chops. But the flashes of comic brilliance they and the rest of the cast display from time to time make one wish they were in a real play.  v

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