“Shear Madness” Set Me Straight at the Kennedy Center

By Sara Dudley Brown, Theatre Editor

Danny Bernardy (Tony Whitcomb) in “Shear Madness”
Photo by Margot Schulman

“Shear Madness,” the truly hilarious (and I don’t say that lightly) whodunit that has been playing almost non-stop at the Kennedy Center since 1987 and holds the Guinness world record as the longest-running play in America, made me quite literally eat my words. I had never seen it, never thought much about it, and assumed it to be just for visitors to our fair city. Then I was invited to see it back in its home, the Theater Lab. Gulp. It’s good, folks. It’s really good. It’s witty, filled with double entendres, puns, malapropisms, and belly laughs like I haven’t had in years! We need this! What rock have I been hiding under that I hadn’t gotten the tweets about this delicious show? I am here, hat in hand, to correct my totally uninformed view of this production.

Brigid Cleary (Mrs Schubert) and Danny Bernardy (Tony Whitcomb in “Shear Madness”
Photo by Margot Schulman

It has a new set, I was told, all bright aquas and hot pinks and lots of checkerboard patterns—a very happy hair salon—until it happens. A murder takes place and one of the six characters we meet during the delightful two hour (including intermission) running time of the show “did it.” AND the audience gets to solve the murder! That’s the premise of a show that has opened 111 “Shear Madness” productions worldwide with more than 68,000 performances in cities like Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Madrid, Paris, Reykjavik (Reykjavik?), Rome, Johannesburg, and Seoul. And it continues to play in Boston (now in its 37th year there)!

Jared Mason Murray (Mike Thomas) and Danny Bernardy (Tony Whitcomb) in “Shear Madness
Photo by Margot Schulman

One would think the show would get stale, but not so! It’s truly a different show every night! I have an actress friend who was in the show three times beginning in 1996, playing Barbara twice for 10 months and Mrs. Schubert for six months. I didn’t know her then; hence my excuse for not seeing the show. She says the audience keeps you on your toes, because every night topical references to current events are injected into the script. The audience can comment on the actors’ lines, and the actors can answer back in character, of course. She says the show was a hoot to do.

The cast also talks directly to the audience on occasion, and the audience can voice opinions on whatever is going on. Eventually, the audience will be asked to vote for whomever they think may have committed the murder, so we have to stay engaged and listen carefully to the questions and answers for clues to the murder. The cast seem to be at the very top of their games, and the outrageous things they say sound exactly right in this surreal setting. We get caught up in their antics, playing along, loving every line, when suddenly it’s time to vote on the killer and…it’s over.

My actress friend also told me that most of the time the audience picks the most obvious person as the murderer, but the actors have to be prepared for surprises. When the audience picks a dark horse, the cast has to come up with that scenario to play out until the end of the show, even though they may have only done it one or two times in the last year. Thankfully, improvisation is second nature to them. In fact, in reading over the cast bios I was very impressed by the breadth of their experience—not what I was expecting—AT ALL.

L to R: Aaron Shields (Eddie Lawrence), Brigid Cleary (Mrs. Shubert), Danny Bernardy (Tony Whitcomb) and Soneka Anderson (Barbara DeMarco) in “Shear Madness”
Photo by Margot Schulman

It’s a fascinating and exciting theatrical premise—interactive live theatre! Who would have thought? Years before our interactive-crazed time (actually 1978!), Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan, original co-producers and the owners and creators of “Shear Madness,” came up with this unique and zany concept. And, oh boy, does it still work today! So, did I enjoy myself and would I recommend this to our dear readers? Yes! Heartily so, without any reservation! I would give it five big stripes up!

Ticket Information:  Performances for “Shear Madness” are Tuesday through Friday evenings at 8 pm, Saturdays at 6 and 9 pm, and Sundays at 3 and 7 pm. Tickets from $54 are on sale through the Kennedy Center website, in-person at the Kennedy Center box office, or by calling 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1324.


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