Morris Panych, one of Canada’s most celebrated playwrights, has always shown an aptitude for bringing to light the existential dread that can underpin everyday life. His assertions of the high stakes within daily occurrences push audiences to look closer at events they might brush off. So it is no surprise that The Shoplifters, Panych’s work currently playing in Montréal’s Centaur Theatre, takes an isolated moment of theft and brings forth a nuanced discussion on class struggle within capitalist society.
Upon entering the theatre, the audience is greeted by an imposingly grand wall of boxes, brand name’s filling the eye and top hits of yesteryear from a low quality speaker filling the ear. A metal and plywood table stands alone. It’s an ominously familiar space for anyone who’s worked stock in a superstore. The action contained within these product lined walls follows the detainment of Alma (Ellen David) and Phyllis (Marie-Ève Perron) – a seasoned shoplifter and a begrudging accomplice. The two are held on the suspicion of an extremely obvious theft by security guards Dom (Laurent Pitre) and Otto (Michel Perron) – one dementedly enthusiastic on the first day of the job, and the other jaded and drained as he awaits his termination. The tone of the play veers back and forth between comic shenanigans and high philosophical debating- at times one smudging too much into the other- as a resolution to this case is chased after by both parties.
The differences amongst the actor’s energies make for satisfying dynamics: Pitre imbues every minute of his new job with the exuberance of a holy crusade, while Marie-Ève Perron channels an end-of-her-rope desperation into Phyllis as she’s grilled; their more explosive energies are balanced by the cool and calculating nature of Otto and Alma, David exuding an unfaltering confidence and awareness with every quip, while Michel Perron’s genuine concern draws endless empathy for Otto in his attempt to understand why Alma chooses the life of a career shoplifter.
There’s a lot going on within the messages of the show. There’s the changing of the guard between Otto and Dom, with Otto lamenting that the world he once knew has changed- or perhaps never existed to begin with; it rings similar to the unkept promise of the American dream evoked in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. There’s the conflicting views on theology and spirituality, Dom entirely assured of a Christian god watching over and casting judgement, Phyllis believing in some form of karmic force in the universe seeking balance, and Alma expressing a purely secular view of the situation. But the heart of the play is it’s statement on class struggle and capitalism.
Throughout the show we learn more about the situation between Otto and Alma, discovering that throughout the months that Alma has been shoplifting at this store, Otto has been doing all that he can to prevent her being caught by the management. It raises the question as to whether there are good motivations for theft, what is the moral grey area between letting those in poverty starve and securing the lawful interests of a corporation, and how the systems in place serve to perpetuate these roles. Panych seems to summarize in a speech of Alma’s that we are all animals at the same dwindling watering hole, with the unseen crocodiles of capitalism being the only victors so long as this cycle remains.