Method in Madness

by vpundir | May 20th, 2005

Rrriinnggg…the shrill sound of my barely-functional, minimalistic landline telephone rudely pulls me out of my slumber and dumps me into a half-awake state.

It’s 4.30 pm. I had gone to bed just a couple of hours earlier after 5 days of hardly a wink. “I don’t wanna get up”, I mumble. But the phone is insistent. So I crawl to the phone and grudgingly pick it up.

The conversation makes up for it. “So, you are about to leave for Scotland, even before I go back home to Trinidad for good? How about catching a play?”

I think that’s a wonderful idea.

“There are two options: one is Shear Madness – it’s a comedy and a murder mystery surrounding the death of a retired pianist planning a comeback; the other is called Five Guys Named Moe, also a comedy. Both are running at the Woodruff Arts Center. We may get the Thursday tickets.”

“Well, go ahead, get them,” I say, secretly hoping that we go to Shear Madness as the combination of a comedy and a murder mystery sounds interesting.

Thursday arrives, and Shear Madness it is. After a false start, and a silent nag over my walking-speed (or the lack thereof), we manage to board the MARTA bus that will take us to our destination.

Tickets collected from the box-office, we walk into the opera store where some souvenir-shopping is done. Of course, broke as always, I haven’t bought anything. Then comes the frantic search for the Hertz Stage, which is not exactly inside the Woodruff Arts Center, contrary to what the Woodruff Arts Center website may lead you to believe.

Upon entrance, it amazes us how small the auditorium is. With a capcity of just about 200 seats wrapped around the stage, it is definitely the smallest theater either of us has ever seen. The stage is set up like a barber’s saloon, and even the wallpaper features the tools of the trade. As we take our seats, I can’t help smiling with amusement as I notice several Coca-Cola advertisements on the background-wall of the stage. Now I’m certain that this indeed is WOODRUFF Arts Center.

Shear Madness is the name of the saloon that the whole play is set in. During the course of events, the audience discovers that a retired stage-artist has been killed upstairs. Two undercover cops, who passed-off as customers earlier, assert that the killer is one (or more) of the four people present in the saloon. After investigation and interrogation, when a clear picture doesn’t emerge, the cops ask the audience to step-in and join the dots.

Access Atlanta calls the play silly. I think Shear Madness is why theater is not about to die anytime soon.

Movies and television have taken away much of the entertainment value of theater, and used that as the foundation to build skyscrapers. Compared to theaterical productions, they have huge expert teams, unlimited access to technology and special effects, great possibilities in terms of visual presentation, the triple-comfort of retake-edit-dub, massive budgets and, of course, countless viewers.

In the face of such formidable competition, what can theater do? Should it continue doing the same old thing that it has been doing for centuries, hoping that the audience would turn up for the sake of tradition? That’s the Broadway formula. And the opera formula. They seems to have a unique brand of reverse-snobbery fed continuously by their “art savvy” patrons. In fact, I’ve heard people say that stage-play performers are better actors than those in movies. I find the idea ridiculous. Granted that theater actors don’t have retakes, and therefore no room for mistakes, but then again, to cater to large live audience, they rely on acting-by-body rather than histrionics.

I believe that as long as theater keeps doing the same things, it will continue to be a poor cousin to movies and TV.

Shear Madness is not a passive, run-of-the-mill theater production. It leverages the unique advantage of theater – live audience! Thus, not only does it weave-in city-specific and contemporary jokes, but actually gets the audience involved by making the script interactive. So, every show is different.

Admittedly, this is controlled and programmed interactivity since there are 4 different but scripted endings depending upon what the audience wants. Not quite like improv-comedy shows. But this is certainly heads and shoulders above any interactivity that I have seen in any theater-play. And the quality of interaction is great – completely engaging.

Besides, it is very funny. Not the kind of raunchy comedy that stage-comedies have come to represent, but genuinely funny, and the kind that you can watch with your mother and your kids. It’s got something for everybody. From the burly, moustachioed, gay & funny barber to his girly, full-of-attitude assistant, and from the eager-beaver cop to the old, high-scoiety lady, the characters will make you smile and lighten-up.

Thumbs and toes up for Shear Madness. Watch it.

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