Saturday, May 16, 2009

Shear Madness at the Marcus Center

By Russ Bickerstaff
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When I got home and checked out the address 2653 North Downer Avenue, I found out it was more or less where I’d pictured it. I’d lived just a few blocks from the area a couple of years back. I remember the bank. I remember the grocery store. I remember the liquor store. It’s not at all the type of place where one would expect a murder to happen. The Marcus Center on the other hand? There have been countless murders THERE over the years—true, all of them have been staged, but . . .

I’d made it to Vogel Hall for the opening night of the latest production of Paul Portner’s Shear Madness: a wildly  successful comic whodunit with a variable ending based on audience response. Walk into the Marcus Center’s Vogel Hall between now and June 7th and you’ll instantly smell the hair product. (It’s a bit overpowering—particularly if you’re sensitive to that sort of thing.) The events of the play take place “today,” at the fictitious Shear Madness hair salon on 2653 North Downer. (A fictitious address—as near as I can make out, the salon would either be in the produce section of a Sendik’s or the lobby of the Associated Bank.) Geoffrey Curley’s scenic design is very natural looking. If it weren’t such a big space, it would almost look realistic for that neighborhood . . .

The fun pop music from the ‘60’, ‘70’s and ‘80’s continues to play as the actors begin to enter the set in character. Lee E. Ernst returns to this year’ production to play a patron of the salon who turns out to be an undercover cop. Ernst is very reserved in the role . . . playing to the more subtle end of HIS comic spectrum. The same cannot be said of John McGivern in the role of flamboyant hair stylist Tony Whitcomb, who is given license to be as over the top with the role as possible. Numerous years in the role both in Milwaukee and Chicago haven’t slowed McGivern, who turned in an inspired comic performance. The humor is updated for every production . . . opening night played host to one of those rare moments onstage wherein an actor lost his composure . . . McGivern had just done a brief comic bit including mention of his character's two cats and a bit of physical comedy when Norman Moses (in the role of businessman Eddie Lawrence) cracked-up and started laughing . . . hiding it quite well at first, but as the audience noticed, it became even more difficult to hide it and well… as I recall McGivern just kept going on the comic riff until Christopher Tarjan (Still somehow managing to stay in character as undercover officer Nick Pulaski) subtly called his attention to Moses. Things settled-down into a more controlled humor. This involves the point in the show leading-in to intermission in which the house lights are raised and Tarjan addresses the audience directly as Officer Pulaski in an attempt to have the audience help them solve the crime. Tarjan has plenty of opportunity to improv some comic lines. Like McGivern, he’s well-poised for that sort of thing, showing considerable talent for it.

Also appearing in the production are Jenny Wanasek in the role of wealthy north shore socialite Mrs. Shubert and Mary MacDonald Kerr as sexy femme fatale hair stylist Barbara DeMarco. It’s always nice to see Kerr onstage, but I don’t recall ever seeing her in anything quite this light before. Without compromising any of the earnest passion that makes her so magnetic onstage, she hits the superficial end of light comedy here, which is an interesting contrast from her last appearance onstage in Next Act’s The Pavilion. Norman Moses’ appearance here as a relatively serious businessman contrasts interestingly with his last stage appearance. The comic intricacy of his last stage performance with Renaissance Theaterworks last month in Barney & Bee was quite different. Here he’s playing things much more confrontational . . . and the whole thing ended with him as the murderer, which can safely be revealed here as there are four other possible endings . . .

With the show over, I walked out of the overpowering smell of hair product in Vogel Hall to smell the Milwaukee River . . . I wish I could say it was a pleasant experience . . . I think I was smelling the tannery . . . my sense of smell and I still haven't reconciled . . .

Shear Madness runs through June 7th at the Marcus Center’s Vogel Hall. 

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