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Wednesday, May 7 1997
The Audience Is The Thing
Shear Madness. By Paul Portner. Directed by Bruce Jordan. Starring Matt Callahan, Francine Torres, and Christopher Tarjan. At the Mason Street Theater, 340 Mason, on an open run. Call 982-5463.

It's hilarious, it's ribald, it's magenta vinyl furniture and mincing, horny hairstylists! It's Shear Madness, the longest-running nonmusical play in American history and a cottage industry unto itself. The interactive whodunit was launched in Boston in January 1980 and has been cloning itself ever since. Now with 28 productions running around the world -- including ongoing shows in Fort Lauderdale, Budapest, and Montevideo -- Madness mavens Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan have brought the show to S.F., replete with "local humor" about the Castro, Brisbane, and the Board of Supervisors.

As the audience trails in, flaming Tony and gum-snapping Barbara prance about their salon to blaring oldies. With canned insouciance they subject a hapless male customer to tacky, wacky antics. The boobs in face and shooting shaving cream immediately had the crowd chortling like a bunch of hyenas. My companion and I eyed the exit. The pathologically upbeat mood and earsplitting ditties fused into a terrifying spectacle of F-U-N! The producers seemed to have reduced entertainment down to a single elegant equation:

2 breasts + 1 homosexual + noise = humor.
Finally the music fades, followed by a short yet confusing one-act. It involves a Pacific Heights matron, two seemingly ordinary customers, a mysterious man with a briefcase, and an offstage mad pianist who drives patrons and beauticians to distraction with her repetitive practicing. Things come to a head with the discovery that the pianist has been murdered. While the manic pacing and overwrought caricatures infused the production with an indelible sitcom sheen, much of the dialogue and acting proved to be winningly self-aware. Just at the point when Matt Callahan as the gratingly swishy Tony threatens to erode the last 30 years of gay activism, Barbara cries, "You're such a stereotype, Tony! I don't know what we're going to do with you." "In the '80s I was a stereotype," he declares. "In the '90s, I'm postmodern." By the end of the evening, Callahan was attacking Tony's flouncing, snippy queerdom with such genuine verve that he emerged from the hole he had been digging as the most three-dimensional personality onstage.

No matter the modest comic virtues of the first half, the play's real drama begins when the script ends. The two normal customers reveal themselves to be policemen and proceed to investigate the case by enlisting the audience to help reconstruct the events leading to the murder. As the crowd shouts out observations about bloody gloves and suspicious phone calls, the characters try to convert their accusers, bribing them with candy and arguing their case. In the end we are asked to vote on the killer, thereby directing the final course of the play.

Having discovered a deep human yearning for interactive spectacle, the producers exploit it fully -- giving each audience member the infantile sensation of control that David Foster Wallace calls that "special-for-me feeling." This giddy rush of engagement washes away even the most ossified critical apparatus and leaves one feeling tipsy. On that night, the scene verged on anarchy when certain gentlemen in the back row decided to comment on an actress' cup size. In these moments, Shear Madness transcended its safe mainstream mantle and became something truly weird.

-- Carol Lloyd

Sex, Sex, Sex
Grease! By Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. Directed by Jeff Calhoun. Starring Adrian Zmed, Mackenzie Phillips, and Sally Struthers. At the Golden Gate Theater, 1 Taylor (at Market), through May 11. Call 776-1999.

Seeing Grease! in the Tenderloin is something like eating cotton candy in a soup kitchen. You pass strip joints and neon porn shops, prostitutes, abandoned storefronts with people sleeping in the doorways; you find your seat in the opulent Golden Gate Theater and watch, before the show even starts, some damn fool in plaid pants and a zebra-print coat dancing onstage with teen-agers and kids from the audience. For decoration behind them there's a pink-and-black phonograph record with Vegas lights along the rim, and an orange curtain that reads, enormously, "1959." Civilization goes to hell outside while a section of the middle class that largely doesn't even remember the decade acts out a queer nostalgia for the '50s. It is weird.

Then a school bell rings, the house darkens, and Sally Struthers comes down the aisle, looking plump and mean, with piled blond hair and cat's-eye glasses, blowing a whistle. Everyone cheers, because everyone likes Sally Struthers. And, in fact, she's funny: Her screechy, shrewish voice contributes to a perfect caricature of Miss Lynch, the principal. When a few stragglers take their seats she stops the show, hand on hip. "We'll wait," she says scratchily. "Don't you know how to tell time yet? Big hand on the 12, little hand on the 8!" It's like being back in school.

Part of the reason for that impression is the audience, which consists mainly of kids and the parents who brought them. Grease! is a family show, which seems strange when you consider how raunchy it is. Two men bare their asses during a number called "Mooning"; Rizzo gets her legs pulled wide during a song that makes fun of Sandra Dee; two men plunge their faces into cleavage; and according to one of Danny's friends a girl named Cha-Cha has passed along the story that Danny "tried to get into her silks." "Well if he did," says another friend, "he must be makin' a bug collection for biology!"

[Rim shot]
This show never would have been staged for families in 1959. Still, on opening night, the raunch didn't go over too well. My impression was that the kids wanted to laugh, but they were there with their parents; and the folks wanted to Set a Good Example. That dynamic made most of the sex as hilarious as an expired whoopee cushion, which to me was the funniest part of the play.


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