Audience participation reaches new level of madness as cast of suspects throw stand-up comedy and improvisation into murder mystery.

Isabel Fernandez is a lonely woman. The piano is her only companion. Or at least the one that never leaves. The only constant. This is Shear Madness, an interactive whodunit directed by Richard Gardner of Gardner & Wife Theatre.

It tells the story of Isabel. She used to be a renowned pianist, mesmerising the world over. But something happened during one of her concerts. Something dreadful and embarrassing. After that, she never played in public. She became a recluse. She became bitter and needy and manipulative.

Her downstairs neighbours dislike her for it. Tommy, a hairdresser, is chief amongst them. He abhors her incessant piano practising. It got in the way of his business. Trimming, cutting and shaving were intermittently interjected by Chopin’s Concerto No. 2 or Schubert’s Death And The Maiden.

One day, amidst the going-ins and coming-outs of customers, everyone at Tommy’s Shear Madness hair salon heard a scream. Chanel, the salon’s beautician, dashed in and exclaimed, “Isabel is dead!”

Thus began the adventure to find Isabel’s murderer. The police rounded up the only four people who could have done it: Tommy (Abdul Qahar Aqilah), Chanel (Marina Tan), Datin Violet Schubert (Junji Delfino) and antiques dealer Eddie (Na’a Murad). They were the only ones present in the building when Isabel died, and the police needed all the help that they could get.

“Lights please!” said one of the inspectors. And all the house lights in the theatre went up, revealing an eager audience that turned up for a recent show.

Phoon Chi Ho (centre) as the inspector asking the audience to point out any mistakes done by the four suspects in their re-enactments.

Based on the play Scherenschnitt, written by the late German playwright and writer Paul Pörtner in 1963 to use as a study of how people perceive (or misperceive) reality, Shear Madness incorporates improvisation, comedy and audience participation in the crime-solving process.

The Malaysian edition was first staged earlier this year in May. As the script goes, the inspectors played by Alfred Loh and stand-up comedian Phoon Chi Ho interrogate the four suspects separately, gleaning whatever information they are able to. Their connection to Isabel and whatever semblance of a murder motive slowly begins to surface.

One of the characters may have had a more than romantic relationship with Isabel while another may be after her fortune. Everyone seems equally guilty. This is when the inspectors turn to the audience for help.

The four suspects are required to re-enact their actions from the moment they walked into Shear Madness up to the point of the murder. Members of the audience are then asked to stop the scene and point out if there are any discrepancies.

A character may intentionally or absent-mindedly do or say something that they did not do initially. Instances like this, coupled with the information acquired during the interrogations, provide more clues to the identity of the murderer.

The actors playing the suspects must instantly try to wriggle themselves out of incriminating situations. No one knows what the audience may point out, keeping the actors on the edge.

It was hilarious to watch the actors arguing with audience members when they got too earnest to incriminate them. One lady even stood up and argued her case on the apparent contrariety, to which Chi Ho, as the inspector, lambasted, “Are all datins like this?” The hall thundered with laughter.

However, the momentum dropped after the intermission. The progression seemed like a crawl and the energy on stage was dissipating. If it wasn’t for Qahar and Marina’s larger-than-life personalities and Chi Ho’s quick retorts, the show may have dwindled to a trudging affair.

The exciting part of the play was when the audience was asked to vote on who they reckoned the murderer to be. The course of the play is then veered by the votes. This keeps things fresh, for the killer may change during every show. You have to wait until the end to see how things play out based on the votes.

All in all, Shear Madness is comedic, unpredictable and packs a host of maddening characters. But you will realise, if you pay close attention, that there is method to their madness, sheer or otherwise.

■ Shear Madness is now playing at PJ Live Arts Theatre (Jaya One, Jalan Universiti, Petaling Jaya) until Sunday Dec 7. Shows are at 8:30pm except on Sunday at 3pm. Tickets from RM50–RM90 are available at tix.my. For more details, visit gardnerandwifetheatre.com or pjlivearts.my, or email boxoffice@pjlivearts.my