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The raw power of overkill

Plastic garlic! Plastic lobsters! Plastic everything!

| 21 May 2024 | 11:23

There is a poignant scene in The Graduate (1967) when Dustin Hoffman’s character is standing by the pool talking with Mr. Robinson, the husband of his lover, who puts his arm around Hoffman’s shoulders and sums up the future in one word: “plastics!” One could pinpoint that moment as the beginning of our unraveling. Indeed, our globally-addicted, plastic-consuming society has become utterly dependent upon it since. Here we are, some three generations later, and our collective future is compromised by plastic of every variety, so much so that we cannot see a path forward with or without it.

The dynamic and immersive The Plastic Bag Store by artist Robin Frohardt at MASS MoCA tackles the issue of plastic in an exciting yet sobering show that will leave you gutted, with a chuckle all the same. Commissioned by Times Square Arts, the project premiered in New York City in 2020 and has travelled to Los Angeles, Chicago, Austin, Adelaide and now North Adams, MA. Frohardt, an award-winning theater and film director, is a true sorceress in her ability to transform common plastic bags into a delightfully believable setting while weaving in humor, craft and a critical edge to address our culture of consumption and convenience. The show is billed as a “tragicomic ode to the foreverness of plastic,” and it certainly makes the point by taking the audience on an atypical and unforgettable adventure through the maladies of our age-defining invention.

The Plastic Bag Store is a clever spectacle, including a full-scale recreation of a supermarket made entirely of upcycled plastics and packaging (complete with bakery, fish store and frozen food section). A nimble crew dismantles and reassembles the installation as part of this lively site-specific performance. Original, inventive puppetry plays take place in intricate handmade cardboard sets, viewed on film by the audience inside a cave-like room with a ceiling densely covered in plastic bags. (Advance timed tickets are required and groups are limited to 40 people or less at each 45-minute showing.) A faux museum environment glorifies the ancient qualities and uses of plastic in a future world (if we ever get there).

The flow of these various interactive experiences is fun and well organized, keeping the audience guessing. And while all the components of The Plastic Bag Store illicit admiration, the underlying reality of this total-work-of-art show is disheartening and distressing.

There is much to say with respect to the cleverness and raw impact of this show (plastic garlic! plastic lobsters! plastic everything!), yet the cinematic segments with puppets are particularly engaging and exceptionally crafted. The film is darkly comedic and tender in its presentation of the outright mess we are in. Frohardt and her talented team employ various shadow puppets and lovable cloth puppet characters to take us on a simple journey that speaks volumes. The first part of the film functions as a postcard from the past, reminding us that “knowledge is virtue” as it teases out an allegorical narrative using ancient Greek characters and cultural references to create a timeline for our current throw-away plastic dependent folly.

The story culminates in a “most valued customer” wisecrack, which unfurls through the lives of contemporary puppet characters who encounter plastic in familiar and future apocalyptic settings. The moral: plastic never goes away, and greedy and shortsighted behaviors have wrecked our natural planet. Indeed, the overkill of this message is the undeniable power of this show.

The text in the activity guide sums up the gist of the quagmire we’re in. The Plastic Bag Store, visitors are informed, highlights the impact of single-use plastics with an “aim to challenge your thinking,” in the hope that using our imaginations might encourage a more upbeat perspective on the overabundance of plastic. Magical thinking, in other words.

Suggested activities: turn plastic into art! Alas, The Plastic Bag Store does just that and is outstandingly inventive and depressingly illuminating at once. Frohardt pushes the endless-flow-of-plastic reality in your face with comical charm, cheer and candid cultural commentary throughout. Mr. Robinson, WTF did you think would happen? Never mind the way this show will metaphorically punch you in the plastic-gut of gluttony and tear your non-plastic human heart out before you leave — it’s a must-see for all ages.