I’ve seen shows you people wouldn’t believe.
I watched “Shear Madness,” a forty-year old interactive murder-mystery theatrical comedy in a revival at Mercury Theater. I watched talented actors throw themselves headfirst into a show filled with jokes you couldn’t find at the bottom of a trashcan at the “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” writers room. Racist, sexist and homophobic jokes hurled across a chasm, grasping for laughter and praise, only to be greeted by groans and boos.
I watched a “comedy” about the employees and customers of a tacky hair salon at the center of a murder mystery, with the mystery of “Do I believe that this show was created forty years ago?” being the easiest case of the night to solve. I watched attempts at being “relevant” that included jokes about Bernie Sanders being old, Joe Biden being out of touch and Bill Clinton being horny. Jokes you wouldn’t even find in the comment section of a boomer Facebook group. I thought about the Boston-area audiences who have attended their local production of “Shear Madness” for the past forty years. I wondered how they’re doing.
I watched a show filled with references to (in no particular order) Mike Ditka, Betsy DeVos, Michael J. Fox (in a joke as tasteless as you could imagine), Yelp, Baby Yoda, Geico, Paris Hilton, Jeffrey Epstein, Nancy Pelosi, “Frozen” and Taylor Swift. I felt my mind fight with itself at the very conundrum that was on display before me: a company of theater makers begging to stay relevant, only to reveal how dated and out of touch they truly are.
I felt a lump in my throat as the lights came up midway through the first act to reveal that we, the audience members, would now be able to throw our voices into the room to question the motives of our various suspects. My mind wandered to the practices of Augusto Boal, founder of Theatre of the Oppressed, who gathered communities of people in Brazil to use the power of theatrical storytelling to protest and attack systems of political oppression. I wondered what Boal would think about the community gathered in the Mercury Theater, arguing over whether Eddie Lawrence left through the front door or the side door.
I watched a community grow mad in that room. Audience members heckling actors. Deranged theories about the mystery at play being lobbed into the air and swatted at the stage like a drunken game of badminton. I gasped in amazement at the attention to detail of my fellow audience members who reminded us that, yes, Mrs. Schubert did use the phrase “It’s already been done” on her phone call in the middle of the first act. I asked myself what life choices led me to this moment, trapped in a world I could barely recognize yet one that also felt far too familiar.
All those disastrous grasps at relevancy, all those feeble, bigotry-adjacent attempts at humor, all those peeks into the chaos of humanity and the dark potential of bringing irrelevant forms of theatrical storytelling back to the forefront of Chicago’s theater scene. All those moments will be lost in time. Like shears in rain.
Time to cry. (Ben Kaye)
Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 North Southport, (773)325-1700, mercurytheaterchicago.com, $40-$60. Through March 29.