Theatre 3 has turned its smaller, downstairs Theatre Too space into a kind of living museum of reliable shows. I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change keep coming back, an Avenue Q ran there for upwards of a year. Currently, it’s the home for Shear Madness, one of the more enduring regional shows for nearly four decades. (It’s been playing in Boston since about 1980 and has been in the District of Columbia for 27 years.)
As much a game as a piece of theater, it’s set in Uptown Dallas’ Shear Madness salon (the location is flexible from production to production, as are the time-sensitive jokes with pop culture references). Run by flamboyant stylist Tony Whitcomb (B.J. Cleveland), it’s the setting for a murder, a respected concert pianist and Tony’s landlady. Who committed the crime? Tony? His saucy assistant, Barbara (Sherry Hopkins)? Muddle-headed socialite Mrs. Schubert (Gene Raye Price)? Shady antique dealer Eddie Lawrence (David Meglino)? Cops Nick (Bradley Campbell) and Mikey (Matthew Clark) want to find out.
And that’s where the audience comes in. Midway through Act 1, the house lights come up, and attendees are invited to ask questions, assist in restaging the events and suggest theories (which the characters might be able to explain away). The audience then even votes on who the killer is.
This isn’t the inventor of audience participation theater. Peter Pan requires children to clap if they want Tinkerbell to live, and British pantos — children’s holiday plays — rely on hissing, sing-alongs and such. And of course, both the musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood and the film Clue vary their endings (one with audience votes, one with the luck of the draw). The effectiveness usually depends upon the improv skills of the cast and the engagement of the audience.
At press night for Shear Madness, the audience was involved but sometimes puzzled about how to proceed, and the finale lacked some punch. Until then, though, the play is a hoot — not subtle by any means, but silly fun. The one-liners include a slew of groaners (as up-to-date as references to Solange Knowles) with a Mad-Libs mentality (insert cagey reference to Dallas culture here). But the cast is energetic, with Cleveland exhausting as the frenetic flirt (following Pageant, this is the second show in a row with Cleveland where the audience votes on the outcome), and the slapstick works most of the time, especially in the garishly decorated set. Shear Madness is set to run most of the summer in Theatre Too; it’s a good way to get away from the heat and have a rollicking few hours of nonsense.
Through July 20 at Theatre 3.