For those who may not have heard of the whodunit-audience-participation murder mystery play “Shear Madness”—despite its seventeen-year run in Chicago that ended in 1999—it is the straight-play equivalent of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Cats.” Indeed, both shows defy the act of criticism. Both shows first pounced upon an unsuspecting American public in the early 1980s and spread to all parts of the world faster than a plague. Both are performed in English or whatever language its umpteenth production in umpteenth country dictates, but you can be forgiven if you fail to understand the action. And finally, both appeal to suburbanites and tourists, the kind of individuals whose patterns of repeat behavior to all that is safe and antiseptic have also made it possible for multiple chains of theme restaurants to proliferate across the USA. In other words, just as “Cats” begat “Starlight Express” and “The Lion King,” “Shear Madness” will go down in the annals of theater history as having been the mother hen of lowest-common-denominator, long-running non-musical turkeys such as “Bleacher Bums,” “Nunsense” and “Tony and Tina’s Wedding.” To recommend it would be to encourage tastelessness. Otherwise, from Beyoncè to Berwyn, Illinois, the puerile jokes, groaners and cheap visual puns have been updated and localized for this Windy City revival. The ensemble features cast members who have been with the show in its various incarnations about as long as some dancers stayed with “Cats,” and the multiple-ending gimmicks made me nostalgic for the much better crime classic “Clue,” especially since “Madness” proves dramatically as thin as the piece of cardboard on which the Parker Brothers game first appeared. This production also inaugurates the Chicago Theatre Downstairs, a new performance space that feels less like a theater and more like a claustrophobic bomb shelter given its drab walls, horrible acoustics and uncomfortable studio-like seating. Watching “Shear Madness” in that space felt like sitting through a seminar at the Learning Annex. At least in the Learning Annex, you might come out smarter than when you first entered. (Fabrizio O. Almeida)
Chicago Theatre Downstairs, 175 N. State Street, (312) 902-1500. Mon, Wed-Fri 7:30 pm/Sat 6 & 9pm/Sun 3 & 7pm. $42.50. Open run.