Some chase. Some run. The game of life might really just be a game of cat and mouse as Arena Stage proves with their uproarious new comedy that launches their 2014/2015 season into full gear. The world premier of the biting and gripping comedy The Shoplifters makes its debut upon the Kreeger Theater stage at the Mead Center for the Arts with rapturous laughter that will leave your side sore, your heart full, and your mind in a dizzying coma of bliss. Written and Directed by Morris Panych, this hilarious battle of wills brings the nature and meaning of shoplifting to new scales of justice and calls of a closer examination of the human condition on the whole.
Scenically the set is mesmerizing bordering on the point of overwhelming. Set Designer Ken MacDonald takes a springboard from a point of realism and draws it upward into a consumptive entity that is almost a distorted mockery of reality. The back storage room of the major chain grocery super mart is loaded with boxes stacked up through the ceiling. MacDonald reflects the overly capitalistic enormity of such mega chains in this design and even incorporates familiar brand name products on the boxes for relatability. It’s Lighting Designer Nancy Schertler that throws MacDonald’s work askew. At random intervals up the towering walls of bulk storage and supply are rows of exposed product— dish detergent bottles, jars of mayonnaise, and things of that nature. They seem out of place and would be forgivable if they weren’t backlit with color every time a scene comes to an end and transitions into the next moment of the show. Schertler has this curious lighting effect take place between every scene change and it feels surreal and superfluous. While impressive the concept does not fit the other design elements of the production and feels thusly out of place.
Original Compositions are worked into the soundscape by David Van Tieghem and they become a driving undercurrent that moves the piece along swiftly. Playwright Morris Panych has written a comic masterpiece that delves deeper than just surface entertainment for the masses. His biting wit is threaded across four uniquely developed characters that foil exceptionally against one another. Honing in on the nature of life inside a concentrated situation, Panych captures the essences of humanity in comedy, a rare device often reserved for dramatic material. With a blend of witty one-liners and long-winded setups that ultimately lead to uproarious laughter, Panych’s work steals the laughter straight from your heart and runs away with it at full speed.
The play can be split across the age line with the junior security guard in training Dom (Adi Stein) verses the seasoned veteran Otto (Delaney Williams.) Eager and spastic, Stein’s portrayal is one hilarious scream after another as his overzealous nature goes on a religious crusade to purge the world inside the mega mart of shoplifting sinners of all ages and genders. Creating the perfect foil for this neurotic youth is Phyllis (Jenna Sokolowski) who is equally high-strung only representing the other side of the spectrum. Their interactions together become truly priceless, particularly when the physical chase accelerates itself through the stockroom and out into the warehouse. Both Stein and Sokolowski bring infinite energy to their characterizations, keeping them in continual states of heightened excitement— be it spastic righteousness for Stein or fitful hysterics for Sokolowski.
Williams, as the exasperated senior security man, provides the perfect foil for Alma (Jayne Houdyshell.) The banter that arises between them is loaded with shocking moments, delightful barbs, and a rich interpretation of subtext. Despite his occasional trailing off at the ends of sentences, Williams is sturdy in his portrayal of the veteran security guard. He builds up his anger in steps until it erupts out in the most unconventional of ways. The chemistry between the pair is fascinating to behold as it swings violently from enemies to the other end of the spectrum in a very quick snap.
Houdyshell is gruff and grit through and through. There is a gravely determination that drives her performance, pushing her to the limit with her vocalization and overall emotional portrayal. Houdyshell creates electric friction between herself and the other three performers, varying from magnetic to repulsive and everything in-between. When the four of them finally enter the scene it is Houdyshell that drives the explosive dynamic of their interactions; a blistering eruption of reality in her character surging through her and into the others.
The imbalances of the world cannot be corrected with a stolen can of tuna, but the imbalances in one’s viewable entertainment certainly can be corrected by seeing this performance. Audiences might even walk away learning the value of life and that it’s definitely worth more than a few bucks.
Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes with one intermission
The Shoplifters plays through October 19, 2014 in the Kreeger Theater of Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater— 1101 6th Street SW in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 488-3300 or purchase them online.