Warning to those suffering from vertigo: Do not ride Shear Madness. The largely improvisational comedy, now at Geva, runs at a frenzied pace, thrusting the audience through an enervating and hilarious trip.
The evolution of the play began in Rochester in 1976 when Geva put on a play called Who Dunnit?. That production featured Bruce Jordan, the director of Geva's current incarnation. Excited by the show but left wishing for a brighter adaptation, Jordan secured the rights and, with his partner Marilyn Abrams, created just that.
This version of the show takes place inside a posh hair salon on the corner of Park and Oxford. The set is realistic down to a working washbasin and (keep your eyes peeled!) a City Newspaper stand. With the Rochester skyline as backdrop, the swirling psychedelic pastels of the salon's wall are disorienting which, I suspect, is intentional.
As the audience filters into the theater, the characters are already on stage creating the business of a salon. Madonna's "Material Girl" and "Help Me Rhonda" by the Beach Boys plays. Hair is washed to the beat and nails are wildly filed with the rhythm.
The cast shines, thinking on their feet and reacting with honed comic instincts. Barbara Bradshaw, as Mrs. Shubert, is everything one could hope for in a snooty socialite. Blinding the audience when it caught the light, Mrs. Shubert's rock of an engagement ring was a physical reminder of her superiority. Geva Improv captain Tim Goodwin, costumed in geek worthy button down and off kilter bow tie, turns in a delightful performance as the Barney Fife to actor Larry Bull's Andy Griffith.
Tony Whitcomb, the flamboyant proprietor, played with flair by Tom Wahl, and his second chair Barbara Demarco (Margot Moreland) are constantly annoyed by the blaring concerto of famous pianist --- and upstairs neighbor --- Isabelle Czerny. When police burst in to reveal that Czerny has been murdered with a pair of styling shears, it turns out that Tony, Barbara, and supposed walk-in Eddie Lawrence (Daren Kelly) all had motives. RPD officers Rossetti (Bull) and Thomas (Goodwin) have to solve the case.
But to solve it, they need the audience. Audience members help the detectives reconstruct events, locate clues, and determine suspects. During intermission, Detective Rossetti circles the lobby, taking questions and questioning the audience in return. People crowded around him excitedly, raising their hands to offer witness. One woman pointed at me --- standing behind the detective and taking notes like a good little theater reviewer --- and whispered to her husband, "She must be really interested in solving the crime."
Director Jordan goes for the laugh at every turn, whether it be a turn of phrase, punch line, irony, or physical. However, the actors zing the audience so quickly that the following lines are drowned in laughter.
The show is peppered with references only Rochesterians could appreciate, from Vinny and Angelo to Nick Tahou. "If you don't like the weather in Rochester, wait a minute!" says Tony. And, believe it or not, this isn't the worst of the worst. A reference to Detective Rossetti, after a psychic moment, having ESPN? It's true.
No matter how improbable the situation, hold on and enjoy the ride. Who done it? You'll just have to vote and find out.
Shear Madness Tuesdays through Sundays through December 31 | Geva Theatre Center, 75 Woodbury Boulevard | $13.50 to $48.50 | 232-GEVA, www.gevatheatre.org
--- Erin Morrison-Fortunato
In the days following 9/11, Anne Nelson, a writer, met a fire captain facing the task of writing eulogies for eight of his men. In the weeks following the attacks, New York City's Flea Theater, a few blocks away from Ground Zero, was looking for a way to begin to process, on the stage, what had happened. Nelson wrote down her story.
And that's all there is: An editor named Joan (played by Kate McLean) and a fire captain named Nick (Richard St George) sit in a New York City apartment and write eulogies. There are only two actors, but the lost men come alive through Nick's memories and Joan's crafted pieces. It's brilliant: What's happening on stage is what we, in the audience, are still trying to do. Take all the sounds and emotions and vignettes and guesses, put them through the processor, and try to understand. It is an appropriately raw and simple treatment for something that is simply too big to ever fully analyze.
But two things distracted me from this needed simplicity. First, Joan has monologues interspersed with the scenes. Maybe it can be blamed on our distance from the attacks, but Joan's analyses of her and the city's pain lack immediacy. It made it hard to identify with her --- as we are clearly meant to, she is the audience's stand-in --- when she breaks down.
And I was distracted by the twin beams of light (indicating the towers) and 9/11 audio. Those shapes and sounds are seared onto our consciousness, but what happened is still the elephant in the room --- a presence that is so enormous we can't even determine what it is. Any attempt to name it, even now, falls short.
Much better to let Joan and Nick discuss tango. When they describe its beauty their words form a much more poignant picture of what was lost.
The Guys through December 4 | Downstairs Cabaret Theatre, 172 West Main Street | $24 | 325-4370, www.downstairscabaret.com
--- Erica Curtis
Inspired by a photograph of two Scottish soldiers hugging during the Second World War, Kilt is a story not so much about the struggles of sexuality but the twin struggles of family and identity.
"Tartan Tom," (the central character's stage name for his exotic dancing gig at a Toronto gay bar) seems to have little connection with his war-hero grandfather Mac (both men are played by Ben Strickland) except Mac's kilt, which Tom wears during his act.
And Tom's mother, Esther, Mac's daughter. In her opening monologue, Esther (played by Kerry Young) admonishes a classful of hopeful Scottish dancers that the form "is to be lived up to, not interpreted."
Turns out that's her take on just about everything in life and, not surprisingly, Tom hasn't lived up.
The scenes of dysfunction between Esther and Tom are punctuated only when the action flits back to North African desert during the war, where a young Mac is quickly developing something more than a friendship with one of his commanding officers, Captain Lavery (Mark D'Annunzio).
Though Esther and Tom openly dislike each other, word of Mac's death in faraway Scotland near the end of the first act brings about just enough of a détente to get them on a plane home to Glasgow and aunt/sister Mary (Linda Loy) for the funeral.
From there, all manner of hidden truths spill out in scenes that are alternately hilarious or painful, and often both. The plot deepens when an aging stranger (Terry Browne) appears seemingly out of nowhere to become a part of the family's story.
On paper such odd scenarios may seem like a stretch, but in the capable hands (and gestures and accents) of the cast, especially the two women, they're more believable than lots of stories you tell and plenty of fun to boot.
KiltFridays through Sundays through December 18 | Shipping Dock Theatre, Visual Studies Workshop, 31 Prince Street | $22, $12 students | 232-2250, www.shippingdocktheatre.org
--- Krestia DeGeorge
How Blackfriars Theatre manages to transport audiences from their seats in a renovated church hall still amazes me. With a ticket to the latest production, Enchanted April, you're going to Italy (via London).
And Italy, apparently, is a place where tedium and loneliness are banished. This story --- of four very different English women who escape for one month to a rented Italian castle --- believes unabashedly that souls bloom when the flowers do and sunshine is the cure for... well, any ill a London rain can deliver.
Elizabeth von Arnim's 1922 novel is popular on both film and stage (adapted by Matthew Barber) but whatever the medium, this is a story of place and character. It rides upon the actors. Here we have four amazing women --- Vicki Casarett as Lotty, Dina Rath as Rose, Jill Rittinger as Caroline, and McKenzie Keenan as Mrs. Graves --- to show us a wide range of yearning and discovery. They're escaping different things (though it all seems to come back to husbands): war, death, disappointment, loneliness, drudgery.
John Haldoupis' set is, as usual, excellent. He puts the stage's rotating center to great thematic use in the London act, moving the women between their homes, church, and their ladies' club and giving us the hamster-wheel-feel of it all. The second act drips with flowers and glows in buttery light. The costumes are perfect. In all respects, the designers outdid themselves.
And kudos to Haldoupis as director, too, for letting the production be a character study. He lets these women sit and ponder and deliver lines, and lets us be drawn in.
Enchanted April through Dec 4 | Blackfriars Theatre, 28 Lawn Street | $24 | 454-1260, www.blackfriars.org
--- Erica Curtis