By Ian Rigg
Mercury stages a crowd-pleasing comedy? Hair we go again. Their murderous mounting of Shear Madness splits sides as well as split ends – and it’s up to the audience to identify whodunit.
In what easily could have hewed to the mold of beloved but established experiential improv shows like Tony & Tina’s Wedding or Flanagan’s Wake, director Warner Crocker helms a surprisingly layered mystery with a killer attention to detail – there’s been no short-cuts here.
After a brilliantly timed pre-show pantomime to The Beach Boys’ “Help Me Rhonda” (really pitch-perfect silent physical comedy), the show sadly settles into a setup of seemingly stock characters and perfunctory (but not poorly performed) jokes.
BUT THEN – the murder mystery kicks in, and the going gets gripping. The salon slides into a hairy situation when the elderly concert pianist who lives upstairs is found stabbed to death, and each of the suspects – two stylists, two patrons – has more than ample if ambiguous evidence against them. Creators Bruce Jordan and Marilyn Adams set up a script with of richly-detailed detective work: there are many variables, possibilities, and subversions of tropes for the audience to have fun with, for everything uncovered could either be a red-herring or a smoking gun.
And when the last 3/4 of the show is getting solved, the comedy actually sings (but be not afraid: most audiences will likely laugh throughout anyhow). You’ll be glad you booked an appointment when the pace picks up and the conditioner settles in – the barbers trade barbs, characters avoid close shaves, and clues uncurl to a big blowout.
The exhaustive set is styled by Ben Lipinski – fully stocked like a beauty parlor and rich with hidden clues, it even has a fully functional sink and hair dryers.
With this hair salon from hell as his playground, Crocker must be commended for choreographing the capers. Eagle-eyed audience members will have quite a lot to pick up on: the deft deployment of props and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments make for impressive work.
With expert environment and tight direction, the other reason Shear Madness succeeds is that every actor is adept at creating a character— they have to be, because they don’t know which ending they’re performing. Each performer devises devilishly clever improvisation to fill in the blanks until they do. When they call out the would-be-detectives in the crowd, there are even times when the audience seems like it will dye laughing.
Champion and veteran of the show Joe Popp commands the stage with a blue collar charisma, fellow vet Mary Robin Roth sets up snicker after snicker at her stuck-up socialite, David Sajewich conjures a loathsomely oily culprit (…or is he too obvious?), Sam Woods turns in a bumbling but lovable and loyal buffoon, and of course all credit to the comedic timing of Ed Kross. But it’s probably Brittany D. Parker who – while possibly guilty of murder – is definitely guilty of stealing the show: it’s a pleasure to see the quick-witted and dramatic chops beneath the blue-haired, brash and bubbly façade.
Be sure to grab your deerstalker and pipe: with so many fun possibilities of how it could play out after the vote is cast, it may be difficult to decide who the murderer is. But for curious entertainment lovers searching for something fun in the Southport Corridor, it shouldn’t be a hard decision to see Shear Madness in the first place.
Mercury Theater Chicago presents “Shear Madness” through March 29 at 3745 N. Southport Avenue, Chicago. For tickets and more information, visit here.