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In theater, longtime collaboration is not uncommon. For Canadian playwright/director Morris Panych and his husband, set designer Ken MacDonald, it’s a way of life.
Together, the pair has worked on about 90 productions. Both agree their joint projects can be trying, but they’re always the most fulfilling. “Nobody argues like we do in terms of design,” MacDonald says cheerily and without hesitation. “Other directors like my work from the start, but Morris can be critical. He loves design and as director ultimately has the last word.”
“It’s true,” agrees Panych. “When you collaborate with someone for years whether you live together or not, you get to know them really well — weaknesses and defaults and when they fake an easy route. You call them on it and it irritates them. But it also brings out their best.”
Currently, the couple is in Washington premiering Panych’s “The Shoplifters” at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theatre. The biting comedy features Broadway’s Jayne Houdyshell as Alma, a career shoplifter whose thieving ways are about to be cut short by an overzealous security guard.
“Morris likes to write about petty things,” says MacDonald during a recent chat in one of Arena’s comfortable backstage rooms. The couple finishes each other sentences and talks over one another in a funny but singularly polite way. “That’s true,” Panych says. “I like starting off with something small — like a woman stealing a steak — and extrapolating it into a huge deal.”
Have either ever shoplifted? “No. Never,” says McDonald. But Panych says, “Sure. Long ago before I had a career, I took meat. My friends and I liked to do steak fondues.”
Panych, 62, began his career as an actor but later branched out into directing and playwriting which he had studied in college: “Acting can be humiliating and alienating. Not so much in theater, but as an actor you have to try to get all kinds of work to survive and the judgment is nonstop. I wanted other ways to express myself creatively.”
Throughout most of his 20s, MacDonald, 61, was a high school art teacher. “I was never trained in set designer. I’m foremost a drawer/painter. I draw my sets and then figure out how to build them.”
“He has no technical skills,” says Panych wryly. “But Ken does have great ideas.”
“The Shoplifters” is set in a grocery store break room. Rather than design a generically drab space, MacDonald has constructed a dizzyingly high tower of 800 brown packing boxes interrupted by brightly colored patches of laundry detergent and breakfast cereals. Some of the custom made boxes float like clouds and light shines through the spaces that separate them. “Other directors expect something more realistic. But Morris and I believe theater should be theater. It should make a statement.”
“The play is approached from an absurdist, mock naturalistic point of view. It has to be dreamlike,” Panych says. “We have people surrounded by stuff. We live in a hugely consumeristic world with a huge dichotomy between the haves and have nots. There’s a shockingly large amount of shit in the world. Boxes represent all that we live in.”
Together 34 years, the Toronto-based couple married in 2004. “It was shortly after same sex marriage had become legal in parts of Canada. And there was talk that the right might be taken away. So we thought we’d better do it. Now no one in Canada cares. That’s what I foresee for the U.S. in a couple years.”
In addition to opening “The Shoplifters,” they’re also designing upcoming productions of Panych’s next new play, and the musical “Sweet Charity” for Ontario’s Shaw Festival in May. Right now they’re fighting a lot, says the couple. But it’s not they’re fault. They blame the deadlines.
“We’re fine,” Panych says.
“We’re used to it,” MacDonald adds.