Everybody knows that The Mousetrap, which has been on the go in London’s West End since 1952, is the world’s longest-running play, right? On Broadway, A Chorus Line ran for 15 years, Cats for 18 years; Phantom of the Opera overtook them in 2006 and is still running after 31 years. The Fantasticks, which ran Off-Broadway from 1960 to 2002, still holds the title of the world’s longest-running musical. All of these shows are household names. Shear Madness isn’t, which seems a little odd, because it has been running nonstop at Boston’s Charles Playhouse since 1980. A new local production will be around for the next few weekends at Shadowland Stages in Ellenville.
Shear Madness has an interesting history. It’s essentially a food-free stage version of the now-ubiquitous participatory phenomenon known as murder mystery dinner theater, which itself is rooted in games that became popular in Great Britain beginning in the late 19th century, following a notorious 1860 child-killing known as the Road Hill Murder. Along with a mania for detective fiction including the Sherlock Holmes stories, mystery roleplaying soon became an after-dinner diversion among the wealthy. The first boxed game with a murder theme, Jury Box, came out in 1935, followed in 1948 by the first murder mystery board game, Clue (called Cluedo in the UK).
According to Wikipedia, “Joy Swift is credited with inventing the murder mystery weekend — an interactive dinner theatre which runs uninterrupted from Friday to Sunday — at a hotel in Liverpool on 30 October 1981.” The Hudson Valley’s own Mohonk Mountain House would beg to differ, having hosted its own first murder mystery weekend in the mid-1970s; it has continued this tradition annually ever since. (An interview with the mastermind of those first few Mohonk weekends, Dilys Winn, pioneering founder of the mystery-lovers’ bookstore Murder Ink, was one of this reporter’s earliest published articles, for a long-defunct magazine known first as the Ulster County Artist and later as Ulster Arts.)
What made these events special was their interactivity. Hotel or dinner guests mingled with the actors portraying the suspects (and sometimes the murder victim) and had opportunities to question them before submitting their guesses as to the identity of the culprit. In 1985, Rupert Holmes and the New York Shakespeare Festival took the concept to the stage with The Mystery of Edwin Drood (later shortened to Drood), the first Broadway musical with multiple endings determined by audience vote.
But Shear Madness got there first, minus the musical production numbers. It began as an interactive German play titled Scherenschnitt oder Der Mörder sind Sie by Paul Pörtner. First performed in 1963 at the Theater Ulm, it quickly spread to more than 75 other German theaters and eventually to 18 other countries. It was interactive from the get-go, but Scherenschnitt wasn’t a comedy until two American actors, Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan, got hold of it.
They beta-tested Shear Madness at Lake George in 1978 and then moved it to Boston with the intent of doing an eight-week tryout prior to bringing it to an Off-Broadway run. The Boston production didn’t take off until Abrams and Jordan defied advice to close it for the summer, when most theaters in that city weren’t open. Being the only show in town paid off, and Shear Madness hasn’t stopped running in Boston ever since. New productions were mounted in Philadelphia in 1981 and later in Chicago and Washington, DC; the DC version has been running continuously since 1987.
So why don’t we already know about this perennially popular play? It’s a silly, lightweight romp, packed to the gills with absurdly stereotyped characters and truly terrible jokes and puns, and seemingly at least as much fun for actors, directors and producers as for the audience, since the script is continuously adapted to reflect the place where it’s being performed and the news of the day. “Day” is not hyperbole here: The performance I saw on opening weekend referenced headline items and memes gone viral on social media that were only a week or so old, including a mention of a “short guy in a bagel shop” that drew laughs of recognition from only about three people in the audience who follow Twitter. If you go, expect your show to be slightly different, as the content of Shear Madness is constantly evolving and as throwaway as the sweepings from a hair salon.
The murder in this mystery, of said hair salon’s landlady, takes place offstage during the first act of the play. Audience members would do well to observe very closely the actions of the four suspects onstage, along with two detectives, during the first act before the corpse is discovered. These actions are then restaged as part of the investigation, with the audience asked to correct deviations and fill in possibly pertinent missing details. The fun doesn’t truly begin until the fourth wall is breached, by which time you should have surrendered any initial resistance to the groanworthy one-liners and ridiculously one-dimensional characterizations (prancing, flamingly gay shop-owner, slutty, gum-cracking white-trash hairstylist, most obvious suspect with bad Mafioso accent et cetera).
There’s plenty of allowance here for improv, and indeed, the most genuinely funny moment in the performance I caught was a flub, when one actor was caught off-guard by another’s impulsive unscripted kiss and needed several beats to stop giggling and readjust his face. Spontaneity is the order of the day, staying in character somewhat optional. Just go with the flow!
Brendan Burke directs Shadowland Stages’ production of Shear Madness, which stars the bundle of energy Jason Edward Cook as Tony Whitcomb, Kelsey Leland as Barbara DeMarco, Marina Re (who once played Barbara in the long-running Boston production) as Mrs. Shubert, Michael Irvin Pollard as Eddie Lawrence, Jeff Haffner as Nick O’Brien and Ed Rosini as Mikey Thomas. Performances run through August 18, beginning at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday ($39) and 2 p.m. on Sundays ($34). To order tickets, call the box office at (845) 647-5511 or visit https://shadowlandstages.org/2019-season/shear-madness. Shadowland’s Mainstage is located at 157 Canal Street in Ellenville.
Thursday-Saturday 8 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m. through Aug. 18
157 Canal St., Ellenville