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Madness on the Street

For 16 years Shear Madness has brought more joy to the hearts of conventioneers than anything in Chicago–well, anything legal. But now producers Bruce Jordan and Marilyn Abrams must find a new home for their long-running comedy whodunit: the Marriott Corporation has bought the Blackstone Hotel, at 636 S. Michigan, and plans to convert its Mayfair Theatre, where Shear Madness has been packing them in since 1982, into a restaurant. “We knew it was all over for us when some workmen came into the theater while we were there one day and started taking measurements,” says Jordan. Unless he and Abrams can find a new venue for Shear Madness by November 1, they may be forced to close the longest-running play in Chicago theater history. Jordan admits, “Shutting down is a remote possibility at this point.”

Jordan and Abrams adapted the show from Scherenschnitt, a German play by Paul Pšrtner that they discovered in upstate New York; the two producers bought the worldwide rights and converted the play into a campy murder mystery, set in a beauty salon, in which the audience votes on the likeliest suspect. Shear Madness opened in Boston in 1980, and a Philadelphia production followed the next year. On September 22, 1982, the show opened at the Mayfair, a converted ballroom in the Blackstone; reviews ranged from smugly dismissive to downright scathing. In the Reader, critic Bury St. Edmund noted the play’s “fun-fag double entendres” and “brute-force sitcom humor”; the acting, he declared, was “the professional equivalent of running around with a lamp shade on your head.” But the party atmosphere triumphed at the box office, and the producers have shown great skill in marketing and budgeting the show. Explains Jordan, “We watch where every penny goes.”

Because Shear Madness is a magnet for tourists, the mayor’s office has reportedly tried to help the producers find a new venue. Two months ago cultural commissioner Lois Weisberg mentioned Shear Madness as a possible tenant for the proposed theater space in the Chicago Avenue Water Pumping Station, but that venue may not be ready until next spring. Jordan and Abrams have already scoured the South Loop without success, and several north-side locales have been rejected because they lack adequate parking. (Shear Madness also benefits from having a bar nearby where audience members can get well lubricated before whooping it up at the show.) The producers came close to cutting a deal with Piper’s Alley for the performance space that’s hosted such bombs as Song of Singapore and The Pack Is Back, but the space went instead to a new comedy club.

Jordan and Abrams have focused on Michigan Avenue, River North, and the near north side, hoping to stay close to the major hotels. “Over the years our customer base has been about 50 percent tourists and conventioneers and 50 percent locals,” says Jordan, “so both groups are very important to us. If we ever had to break up that mix of customers, the show wouldn’t work.” With time running out, he and Abrams are beginning to look at raw spaces that could be quickly converted into a usable theater, thinking some developer might see the virtue in having a popular show to anchor a new or rehabbed building. If the team can’t work something out by the end of next month, theatergoers might find themselves wondering not who done it, but where.

All Seriousness Aside

Joanna Settle, a graduate of the Juilliard School in New York, has spent most of her career directing serious plays like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at Juilliard, Pinter’s Mountain Language at Ontological-Hysteric in New York, and Genet’s The Balcony for Thirteenth Tribe, an off-off-Loop company here in Chicago. The last word she ever expected to add to her resume was Grease.

Settle was about to begin rehearsals for Thirteenth Tribe’s production of Bombs in the Ladies Room earlier this summer when she got a call from German theatrical producer Peter Massine, who was planning a multimillion-dollar revival of Grease to tour Brazil. Set designer Michael Downs, who’d worked with Settle in New York and Chicago, had already signed on to the project and had recommended her to Massine. The producer flew Settle to Germany, and once they’d met face to face he got right to the point. “How do I know you can direct?” he asked. He dispatched Settle to DŸsseldorf and London to critique two different productions of the 50s musical, and despite her lack of experience in musical theater, Settle didn’t hold back. “The DŸsseldorf production was garbage, with horrendous costumes,” she recalls, “but the London production was much better.” Apparently Massine appreciated her candor, and he hired her to direct the Brazilian tour, which will be performed in English with supertitles.

Earlier this month Settle was in New York, auditioning Equity and non-Equity actors for a cast of 23; she expects the ensemble to include some of the people she’s worked with there and in Chicago. As she prepared to begin rehearsals in Brazil, Settle hinted that Massine might have other assignments in mind: “Peter says he’s really interested in putting together a good production team for a number of future projects.” And while she plans to return to Thirteenth Tribe in October, Settle isn’t ashamed of the new direction her career is taking. Grease, after all, originated as an off-Loop production in the early 70s. “Hey, the way I look at the show, it’s a fun story about a rock ‘n’ roll woman who turns into a leather queen,” she says. “This is three months out of my life, and I feel it’s something I owe it to myself to try.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Shear Madness theater still uncredited.