The Shoplifters: return it

The Arts Club is producing Morris Panych's new play The Shoplifters.

Patti Allan gives you something to watch in The Shoplifters (Photo by David Cooper)

Morris Panych’s The Shoplifters is so slight that it almost doesn’t exist—although it does contain the beginning of an idea. That idea is about the injustice of capitalism.

Dom, a zealous security guard who’s training in a Superstore kind of place, apprehends a savvy old crook named Alma, who has a choice cut of steak shoved up her skirt. He has also caught Alma’s younger pal Phyllis shoplifting and he’s feeling pretty proud of himself. But Otto, the guard who’s training Dom, takes a larger view: he encourages Dom to ask himself, “Who are the real thieves?”

In his program notes, Panych equivocates: “The Shopliftersis not a revolution or a political movement. It doesn’t ask us to steal anything, or to put anything back on the shelf; both have their moral value.”

But his characters are not so mealy-mouthed. The main figures, Otto and Alma, are both very clear in their beliefs that capitalism fucks over the poor. Alma steals sandwich fixings so that she can offer cheap meals to people in her neighbourhood. And Otto gets choked up when he explains why he didn’t collar a young thief for pocketing a bottle of rubbing alcohol: “What’s a life worth? More than $1.49.” The only opposition comes from Dom. Dom is a fundamentalist Christian, which, in The Shoplifters, is none-too-subtle shorthand for “literalist idiot”.

So the play takes a position. It just doesn’t go anywhere with it. Panych’s analysis is trivial and obvious. “You think it’s an accident that all of the candy bars are stacked near the cash at child level?” Alma asks. And, when she gets really warmed up, she cries, “Want to talk to me about stealing? Who stole the American dream?” Yes, there’s an element of parody in this line, but it’s still a cliché—and that’s as deep as the play’s inquiry goes.

Although it’s supposed to be a comedy, The Shoplifters isn’t funny either. “I have a nut allergy,” Dom says. “Oh, the sensitive type!” Alma shoots back. The night I attended, this exchange actually got a laugh. There is one good line (Alma to Otto): “You take pills for nothing? What are you, a celebrity?” That’s the only one. Now you don’t have to pay to hear it. You’re welcome.

Even with its short runtime—an hour and 45 minutes including intermission—The Shoplifters feels long. Fortunately, there are things to look at.

Set designer Ken MacDonald has constructed the walls of the storage room where the interrogation takes place out of massive stacks of cardboard boxes. It’s classic Ken MacDonald: elegantly simple elements used to optimum effect. He staggers the boxes to create a kind of sculpture, suspends some of them from the ceiling, and opens some up so that, during scene changes, Alan Brodie’s lighting can pour through dishwashing-liquid and other bottles to create a kind of low-rent industrial stained glass.

Ace Martens’s sound design, which sounds like it’s being played on squeaky toys, is appropriately animated.

And there’s some solid work from the cast. Patti Allan’s Alma is endearingly wily. And I appreciated Dean Paul Gibson’s ease as Otto. Gibson’s enormous confidence as an actor allows Otto to deliver some wicked slow burns. Raugi Yu is nicely loose and physical as Dom. And Agnes Tong is okay, in my opinion, as Phyllis. Panych has written a one-note hysterical character, so Tong’s assignment is a tough one. Still, I wish she had found more eccentricity in the mania.

I got through the night, but it left me with a kind of nightmare. What if people think that this is what theatre is for? What if they think that this is all that theatre is capable of?

THE SHOPLIFTERS Written and directed by Morris Panych. An Arts Club production at the Granville Island Stage on Friday, February 22. Continues until March 9.Tickets.

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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