December 15, 2018
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You’re the sleuth in Penobscot Theatre’s zany ‘Shear Madness’

Magnus Stark | Penobscot Theatre Company
Magnus Stark | Penobscot Theatre Company
The cast of Penobscot Theatre Company's production of "Shear Madness" sets up the murder mystery the audience helps solve at the Bangor Opera House.

Fancy yourself a detective? Is your bookshelf packed with mysteries? Do you plan your vacations around “Law and Order” marathons?

Well then, Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of “Shear Madness” is where you can show off your sleuthing skills by solving this maddenly funny whodunit.

It all takes place in a Queen City hair salon owned by the swishy Tony Whitcomb (Dominick Varney), staffed by the dishy Barbara DeMarco (Michelle Weatherbee), stalked by the sleazy Eddie Lawrence (Brad LaBree) and patronized by the matronly Mrs. Shurbert (Amy Roeder).

“Shear Madness” is an interactive theater piece written by German playwright Paul Portner. It was adapted for the American stage in 1978 by Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan and has been performed continuously somewhere in the United States ever since. Wherever it is produced — including in Portland by the Good Theatre Company — the script incorporates local references and landmarks.

Magnus Stark | Penobscot Theatre Company
Magnus Stark | Penobscot Theatre Company
The cast of Penobscot Theatre Company's production of "Shear Madness" sets up the murder mystery the audience helps solve at the Bangor Opera House.

The play begins conventionally enough with the first scene setting up the mystery and introducing the characters. When a body is discovered off stage, Bangor police detectives (Tony Larkin and Alekzander Sayers) burst onto the scene and turn to the audience for help in solving the crime.

During intermission, Larkin gathers clues from theatergoers in the lobby. As the second act opens, Larkin returns to the stage and grills characters about their possible guilt or innocence. Then, the audience votes for who they think carried out the deadly deed and — dum, dum — justice is served. Because the audience changes with each performance so does the script and the unexpectedness adds to the fun.

“Shear Madness” is not your usual murder mystery drama. This is a high camp show, full of double entendres, physical comedy and unexpected twists. At Sunday’s matinee, Larkin and Varney were back to back, about to do an about face to be nose to nose. The actors wound up lip to lip and hilarity ensued. It is a bit they definitely should keep.

A lot of agility is required of the cast which is why directors are required to train for a week at a sort of “Shear Madness” directing camp in Washington, D.C. PTC’s former Producing Director Scott RC Levy attended it two years ago when he directed the show at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College, where he is the director of the performing arts. Levy spent an intense three weeks in his old theatrical stomping grounds honing the Bangor cast’s “Shear Madness” improvisational skills and localizing the script. The result is a fast-paced farce that never drags and fully engages theatergoers.

Magnus Stark | Penobscot Theatre Company
Magnus Stark | Penobscot Theatre Company
Bangor police "officers" raid the Penobscot Theatre Company's production of "Shear Madness," a murder mystery the audience helps solve at the Bangor Opera House.

The cast is first-rate and packed with fast-thinking veterans of improvisation theater. Varney is in his element as the flamboyant hair stylist who keeps forgetting what he’s doing to which customer. His energy and antics drive the production.

Roeder, LaBree and Weatherbee play out their stereotypes well. LaBree is especially adept at being Mr. Sleeze. The cast does its best work when improvising in response to audience members’ theories of the crime.

Larkin and Sayers are a bit too laid back to be believable as Bangor police detectives but are experts at parodying the ones on TV. Older theatergoers may see a bit of the bumbling yet charming Barney Fife in Sayer’s portrayal. Larkin is open and nonthreatening as he interacts with the audience but sometimes looks more like a PI — square jaw, unshaven, dark hair, brooding eyes, buff — than a local cop. He does skillfully move the action along.

Tricia Hobbs’ beauty salon set, complete with running water, working dryers and stylist’s chairs, is the real deal. It is full of places where people and murder weapons may hide. The actors use every nook and cranny to their advantage. Scout Hough’s lighting and Kevin Koski’s costumes are equally well-executed.

It’s easy to see why this is the longest running nonmusical play in American theater history. It is sheer fun and one of the few times as a theatergoer you get to talk back to the characters onstage. What could be more delightful?

Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of “Shear Madness” runs through July 8 at the Bangor Opera House, 131 Main St., Bangor. For information, visit penobscottheatre.org or call 942-3333.

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