Onto the next stage

Performing in the play Shear Madness must be a bit like taking on Bill Murray's role in Groundhog Day. You do it over and over, night after night. You can attempt to alter the course of the plot (Madness has some built-in wild cards) but the end result is more or less known. And then you show up the next day and do it all over again.

"I don't think these kind of marathons are for everyone," says Christopher Tarjan, who will direct the show at Flat Rock Playhouse's new downtown Hendersonville stage, Playhouse Downtown. The play has been running 31 years in Boston and 24 years in Washington, D.C. Tarjan says he knows a performer in the D.C. production who hasn't left the show in 15 years. Tarjan himself has been with the production off and on, and in a number of capacities, since '91.

Madness is a sort of Anytown, USA farce set in a hair salon. When a murder takes place in an upstairs apartment, a full-blown police investigation quickly finds everyone in the salon to be the suspect. Here's where it gets interesting: The actors enlist the audience to help solve the crime, making no two performances the same.

That means there's a lot of improv. "You just don't know what the audience will say," says Tarjan. Then again, "After years of doing the show, it becomes less unpredictable."

Hometown away from home

Madness is run like a franchise by its owners Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan. Originally written as the decidedly non-comedic murder mystery Scherenschnitt by German playwright Paul Pörtner, Abrams and Jordan workshopped the script and unveiled its present slap-stick iteration in 1979. When Madness comes to a new town (like Hendersonville), it's Abrams and Jordan who oversee the production. They "now own the international rights," says Tarjan. "They don't want community theaters and high schools to do it, because it's hard to do. They try to control it because of integrity."

Abrams and Jordan and cast the actors from a stable of seasoned performers. This allows for the improvised parts to work. "Two-thirds of the show is a four-wall show," says Tarjan. The actors know when they'll let in the audience. To prepare for all possible outcomes, the cast and director actually pretend to be the audience during rehearsals, throwing increasingly bizarre clues and suggestions at the characters on stage. "This cast, they all know what they're doing up front," says Trajan.

There are two big roles: The police officer and the salon owner. Tarjan cast Las Vegas actor Nick Caruso in the role of detective Nick Rossetti. "I always thought he should play this role, he's played a couple of other roles in the show," says Tarjan. "He has a hard role. That character is the one who has to stand in front of the audience and hear what they say and turn it into something the cast can use."

While there are no local actors in the cast, Linda Edwards (who has performed in Madness in Charlotte) has a long history with Flat Rock Playhouse. And there is the matter of the hometown details that Tarjan and company will add to the Hendersonville run of Madness. "By the time we're a week into rehearsal, we're all going to know a lot about Hendersonville," says the director. "When you go into a city, you get hit by the stuff that defines a place pretty quickly. What is the 'Cow Palace' or whatever? Then you realize it's a big part of the fabric of the city, and it's got to be in the show somewhere." There are also street addresses and well-known names that, according to Tarjan, will set the play squarely in downtown Hendersonville.

Downtown, waiting for you tonight

One landmark that Tarjan and his crew might stumble across is the theater itself, a new addition to the Flat Rock Playhouse stable of performance spaces (there's also the 500-seat mainstage and the 130-seat cabaret space). Playhouse Downtown opened with its first production in June and Producing Artistic Director Vincent Marini says that walk-up traffic and ticket sales continue to grow each day.

The theater space, at 125 S. Main St., was formerly occupied by the Fazzio Art Gallery. FRP moved quickly on the project, starting construction in April and opening just two short months later. "In large part the interior is complete," says Marini, "but there are a ton of other things we want to do in the building." Upgrading the bathrooms and HVAC system top the list, along with someday owning the building outright.

Because FRP didn't purchase the new theater to start, the company was financially able to take on the new performance space. "We were not expecting to do this right now," says Marini. But because of the success of FRP's 2010 run of shows at the Hendersonville Courthouse, they'd proved that a downtown venue made sense. Support came in the form of $100,000 from the Hendersonville City Council for FRP to develop the 250-seat performance space. "We did it at a cost and on a timetable that made it feasible," says Marini.

The decision to expand was financial, certainly. "There's the potential for millions of dollars in economic impact," says Marini, who cites an "appetite for entertainment options" in downtown Hendersonville. But there's also a spirit of community. Future plans for Playhouse Downtown include a see-through facade, Wi-Fi in the lobby and free concerts. Local musicians and local artists will also be tapped. The idea is to create an open feel to the building that will attract passers-by. "Hendersonville has a lot going for it in terms of its ambiance, its restaurants and everything else on Main Street," says Marini. "But if we're talking about ways of really re-energizing those businesses, it's going to be by having an anchor organization."

Of course, FRP will maintain previously existing performance spaces as well. The Music on the Rock shows, currently held at the cabaret space, are likely to be moved to Playhouse Downtown. The cabaret space might find new uses as a rehearsal venue or a stage for the kids' theater program. In 2012, FRP is launching a full series including what Marini calls "counter programming" to what's on the mainstage. If it's Guys and Dolls on the mainstage, look for an edgy newer work downtown. The idea is that any theater-goer will be able to find something appealing at one of FRP's venues. The programming philosophy for Playhouse Downtown will be less traditional and will go after plays and musicals with a modern sensibility, says Marini.

He adds, "We're hoping to innovate our way out of this recession by giving people new opportunities and hopefully generating enough excitement that people will make the buying decision to come to Flat Rock Playhouse because they have so many options available at so many different price points."

See the play, attend the ribbon-cutting

      The opening night for Shear Madness marks another occasion: Flat Rock’s official ribbon cutting for Playhouse Downtown space. That ceremony will be at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 6, at the new venue (downtown Hendersonville, 125 S. Main St.).

There will be a tour of the theater and a Champagne toast, along with remarks from Flat Rock’s producing artistic director, Vincent Marini; board president, Chris Ricker; and Hendersonville’s mayor, Barbara Volk.

Shear Madness runs through Sept. 4., with matinees Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. and evening shows Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. $34, with discounts for seniors, students and groups. Tickets and information at flatrockplayhouse.org.

— Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

what: Shear Madness
where: The Playhouse Downtown
when: Wednesday, Aug. 3-Sunday, Sept. 4 (Matinees Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., evening shows Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. $34 general admission. flatrockplayhouse.org)

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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