When a rib eye steak stuffed up a woman’s skirt becomes a symbol of life’s inequalities, playwright Morris Panych has made his point.
The Shoplifters, which is playing at the Centaur Theatre until April 7, is a delightful social comedy with tragic undertones that throws a whole new light on those who pilfer.
Set in a grocer’s stockroom, the play is about two shoplifters and their captors, a pair of security guards who caught them concealing special cuts of meat. The dead giveaway was when the younger, more inexperienced of the two perpetrators began walking away like “a geisha,” with the stolen goods in her pants.
Hilarity and drama ensue as the law turns several shades of grey and each character shows a side as raw as the disputed beef. The wonderful Ellen David plays Alma, the older of the two women, whose light fingers are a function of her own poverty and of her desire to alleviate the hunger of others.
David is almost unrecognizable in her transformation from her usual stylish self, into the frumpy, crusty Alma. But her depth and ability to draw in an audience to sympathize with her character is pure David.
Michel Perron plays the senior security guard Otto, who is battling a wonky heart, along with the lawbreakers. Over his years on the job, Otto has heard all the excuses, but is now more concerned with getting thieves to share the real reasons for their misdeeds, so that he can help them by turning a blind eye.
His trainee, Dom, is guided purely by the rules, to Otto’s frustration. Unfortunately, Laurent Pitre, who was simply brilliant in Gratitude at the MainLine Theatre, falls into the trap of overplaying his character and Dom devolves into a caricature that floats away from the prevailing realism.
The other actors get all the laughs, though Pitre colours his role with goofy intent. Watch the subtlety of David’s humour as she breezily extracts a package of emery boards from her bottomless bag, and of Perron, who can get a laugh with silence.
Marie-Ève Perron excels as Phyllis, the sweet-natured coat-check girl who’s dragged into Alma’s meat heist. Alma just wants Phyllis to live a little, rather than be satisfied with trying on other people’s furs to satiate her dreams.
The women make a touching duo in their bid for self-realization. The playwright has tweaked the character of Phyllis into a working-class Québécoise, a departure from the original script that premiered in the United States five years ago. The change gives the production an even warmer connection to the audience.
Further situating the production of The Shoplifters in Montreal, Ken MacDonald has constructed the cardboard version of Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 with his set of more than 700 boxes artistically piled to the theatre’s rafters.
Some are open-sided, revealing the products within, selectively lit by lighting designer Alan Brodie. The illuminated squares simultaneously render the stockroom the altar of blatant consumerism, as well as unfulfilled wishes. In this way, the set captures how the characters’ petty thievery is a symptom of a greater ill in society.
Panych directs his own play and does so with panache, except for letting Pitre run wild. There’s even a touch of the French farce, as we see pursuers and pursued dart past the stockroom doorway in a back-and-forth of hilarious pursuit.
Sylvio Archambault’s talents as a fight director are highlighted with the tussles of a handcuffed Phyllis wielding a chair against the bumbling Dom. It’s all good fun with a satisfying message.
For tickets, call 514-288-3161.