A Cut Above

When audience members are asked to play a part in the improv, another element enters: our pleasure in participatory sport, in testing our wits against the talents of the players. And suffusing it all is what might be called the thrill of the unique, our gladness at being present at something never before seen or heard. It may be a cliche to say that in the theater, every night is a new show, but the fact is, it's only in improv that one feels sure of this novelty. And if the improv goes particularly well, we naturally feel privileged to be there, for this unrepeatable experience.

Shear Madness is about two-fifths scripted and three-fifths improvised, and it's the 60 percent that makes all the difference. Not that the scripted sections don't have their virtues. But even at their best, there's something fundamentally unremarkable about them, something a little too familiar and too trivial. Once the improv starts — well, then all the pleasures mentioned above come into play. Then we see the mettle of six fine actors being tested, and get a chance to put in our two cents as well. Once the improv starts, Shear Madness is genuinely, simply fun.

The first part of the show is mildly amusing, anyway. We find ourselves at a yellow-and-pink hairdressing salon presided over by stylist Tony Whitcomb (John McGivern) and manicurist Barbara DeMarco (Katrina Stevenson). Whitcomb is a silly caricature of a gay male, fighting off his impulse to kiss his masculine clients, and taking a little too much pleasure in having them at his mercy in an adjustable chair. Into his lair come four customers, a Mrs. Shubert (Mardie Schaefer) and three men (Jonathan Harrison, Aaron Berger and Christopher Tarjan), all of whom are targets of Whitcomb's constant mischief and wisecracks. Suddenly we hear loud music coming from upstairs, and we learn that an irrepressible Mrs. Czerny is once again playing her piano too loudly (Harrison: "Rachmaninoff." McGivern: "Gesundheit."). Several of the characters find a reason to hurry offstage, and then DeMarco announces to everyone: Isabel Czerny has been murdered. Blackout.

When the lights come back up, we discover that two of Whitcomb's clients (Tarjan and Berger) are really undercover cops Nick Rosetti and Mikey Thomas, and that everyone else in the cast is under suspicion. As Rosetti leads the murder investigation, we learn that the weapon was a pair of six-inch haircutting shears, that the old musician was taking Viagra ("She heard it makes old pianists perform better"), and that everyone on stage seems to have a motive — and an alibi.

Now the play makes the transition from script to improv. Rosetti announces that since the audience members were witnesses to everything that preceded the murder, he's going to ask our help in reconstructing events. The house lights come up, and we're asked to contradict the suspects when their stories are false. Since all the suspects have strangely faulty memories, we're soon enjoying a virtually continuous — and often very funny — interaction between the performers and the audience.

There's a break for intermission, but Detective Rosetti arranges to meet the audience just outside the theater, where he fields questions and accepts more evidence. Then it's time for Act Two, during which we're allowed to directly interrogate the suspects on stage. The humor's emerging from both sides of the footlights now, and one audience member is even asked to come on stage. Finally, the police ask us to vote on our candidate for culprit; and several minutes later, we discover whodunit. The show ends and we head to our cars, happy. We've seen good acting, quick reflexes, and some delightfully silly physical business.

The show was pure fluff, but it was enjoyable fluff.

And come to think of it, although the improv in Shear Madness is the main attraction, there are some scripted moments that are memorably silly. For instance, when Whitcomb parries a charge of collusion with, "Don't worry — I have collusion insurance." Or when Rosetti has a brainstorm but announces a "hot flash." Someone calls Whitcomb "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Drag Queen," and someone else plays what sounds very much like a local radio announcer's report of the Czerny murder. The script is liberally sprinkled with local references, by the way: to Brandon, the Buccaneers, Joe Redner and even the Weekly Planet. There are several jokes about South Tampa snobbism ("If I'm not south of Kennedy, I'm lost.") And when the Bay area isn't the subject, other topical matters — Martha Stewart, Arthur Andersen, Worldcom — are.

Something else that works — really shines, in fact — is John McGivern's performance. All the acting is solid, but McGivern deserves to be called first among equals. Even before the play officially starts, he's onstage styling detective Thomas' hair and grabbing as many laughs as he can in the process. This, we soon discover, is one of those clowns whose natural habitat is the stage, who immediately grabs hold of his audience and never lets go. Whether absent-mindedly piling a mountain of shaving foam on a customer or referring to an earnest young audience member as "Harry Potter's twin sister," McGivern is inspired, unpredictable, energetic, just plain funny.

Director Bruce Jordan, cleverly respecting this skillful actor, has given him, for much of Act One, the run of the stage. It's a pity he doesn't have more to say in Act Two, but by then the murder investigation is moving ahead, and McGivern is, alas, only one of the suspects.

And that's Shear Madness: scripted and improvised, inessential and silly, boasting several fine performances and one splendidly funny one.

All right, it ain't great art.

But it's not a bad pastime.

Contact performing arts critic Mark E. Leib at 813-248-8888, ext. 305 or e-mail him at [email protected].

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