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In August 1987, Washington City Paper theater critic Bob Mondello sat through Shear Madness at the Kennedy Center. He returned with a lengthy review, titled “Sheer Idiocy,” and the following capsule, which has run in Washington City Paper’s listings section almost every week of the 24 years since:
The “most fun night” Arch Campbell’s ever had at the Kennedy Center is an extended vaudeville routine set in a Georgetown hair salon rather than a play. Funny without ever becoming either witty or clever, it’s an audience-participation whodunit in which we’re encouraged to grill the witnesses and essentially to write our own ending by voting for a guilty party. In practice, there are four endings (one for each suspect), but how the performers get there each evening depends on the questions. There are faggot jokes galore, and shaving-foam jokes, and general stupidity for those looking for froth. It’s not theater exactly, but as empty-headed entertainment it’s not appreciably less stimulating than Cats or a visit to the bowling alley.
Last week, we sent Bob back.
It feels like the late 1980s at the Kennedy Center this month—Les Misérables is back at the Opera House for the kickoff of a 25th anniversary tour, and Shear Madness is still running in the Theater Lab as if it, not Cats, had coined that Reagan-era “Now and Forever” ad pitch.
Mind you, all is not as it once was. Les Miz’s flag-waving revolutionaries are now whisked around Paris by bus-and-truckable projections rather than a turntable, and their reference point for song delivery these days is more American Idol than musical theater.
Upstairs, for good or ill, Shear Madness is much as it was some 10,000 performances ago in 1987. The onstage personnel may have changed, and the preshow announcements now ban texting where they once just banned cameras. But the canary-yellow wallpaper at the Shear Madness Unisex Hair Styling Salon is still as overstated as the plot (I use the term advisedly), which concerns a flamboyantly gay hairdresser, his gum-and-scenery-chewing assistant, and two patrons, each of whom has a motive for killing Tony’s elderly landlady. When the old crone is murdered with a pair of haircutting scissors, the fuzz arrives to grill the suspects, after which—this being an audience-participation whodunit—the houselights come up and it’s our turn.
Shear Madness never claimed to be much more than an extended vaudeville routine, replete with shaving foam, sudsy hair, and jokes so hoary Plautus might have considered them old-hat. The perceived problem has always been its status as an open-ended engagement at the grand marble shoebox on the Potomac River that is our national temple of the arts. Still, audiences have been embracing froth for centuries, and chasing Philistines from temples is thankless work. Initial reviews suggesting the show offered roughly as much theatrical sophistication as a water slide or a trip to the bowling alley did nothing to slow it down.
So, given that there weren’t many empty seats on a recent Wednesday night in the 24th year of its run, it may be best to regard Shear Madness as the theatrical equivalent of an entry-level drug, and hope the adolescent who screeched at intermission that this was the “best play I’ve ever seen!” will graduate someday to the comparative sophistication of The Fantasticks.
Meanwhile, let it be said that the current cast is not texting it in. Brian Sills camps animatedly as the salon’s proprietor, and the others are scarcely less energetic as representatives of social hauteur (Brigid Cleary), busty flooziness (Gillian Shelly), rampant dissembling (Nick DePinto), and the steadfastness of D.C.’s Finest (Aaron Shields and Joel David Santner).
Some of the jokes are a tad altered from those of two decades ago, whether because of changing TV tastes (instead of Vanna White punchlines, we get the Kardashians) or shifting geopolitics (a cop who once referred to lesbians as being in “a Lebanese relationship” now calls them “Libyans”). I don’t remember much in the way of political humor in 1987, but the show currently has a raft of Perry/Palin/Romney/Obama references. And while a vestigial Carol Channing riff flew right over the heads of the school groups in attendance (as did references to Broadway’s Spider-Man—this wasn’t a big theater crowd), the teens roared at anything remotely tabloid-inspired. The line “I’d rather leave my kids with Casey Anthony” positively slayed.
In fact, a grad student could fill a master’s thesis with ruminations on what script tweaks designed to make the show feel vaguely SNL-ish say about changing demographics, and what audience response to those tweaks says about the nation’s evolving views on social issues. Could the increased influence of evangelicals, for instance, account for why a joke that once went, “she’s a day older than dirt; I think she was a waitress at the Last Supper,” has replaced the biblical punch line with “I think she used to babysit John McCain”?
And what does it say that the 8th graders, who had bussed up from Georgia, seemed to have no doubt at all that the swishy gay hairdresser was the killer? The first time I saw the show, he wasn’t even in the running; it was the antique-dealing Lothario and his trampy girlfriend who were my audience’s choices. But that was an era—pre-DOMA, pre-Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, even pre-Will & Grace—when folks worried less about a gay agenda and the society-destroying ramifications of gay marriage. Perhaps effeminacy seemed less threatening in the ’80s to the mix of tourists and locals the show was targeting.
Maybe it’ll seem less threatening again tomorrow, should Shear Madness play to a crowd of conventioneers rather than teens. Locals don’t seem to be much in evidence any more, at least not if the silence that greeted jests about Glen Burnie and Dupont Circle is any indication. But then, folks in D.C. have other options these days. Bowling, I hear, is making a big comeback.