This review contains spoilers for The Plastic Bag Store.
The Plastic Bag Store is, for now, entombed in the infamous heart of Times Square: surrounded by the Hershey’s Store, across from the Olive Garden, catty-corner to the M&M store and its ever-present yellow bags. Unlike those places, which can often struggle to fill their cavernous spaces, it is full to the brim. Lined with coolers and shelves packed with neatly displayed items all made from discarded single-use plastics, it appears, at first glance, to be an ordinary grocery store.
Bright plastic produce sits in bins next to clamshells of plastic salad greens, across from a bakery table replete with plastic cakes and cupcakes with bottle cap toppings. The freezer section is full of items referencing what they’re made of — Baggo Waffles and Bagarino Pizza — next to bulk dispensers filled with the detritus of pill bottles and plastic toothbrushes. Canned music plays, distantly and tinnily. A delirious banner hangs overhead: Bags! Bags! Bags!
“Welcome to the Bag Store,” a woman’s voice purrs, from an invisible speaker. “The only place in New York where you can only get a plastic bag.” Visitors poke at a “red bag boneless New York steak” and peer into a deli case, where Aged Hard Disks sit in neat gray slices.
“No need to check the expiration date on our products,” the voiceover says brightly, her tone edged with subtle menace. “Plastic is forever!”
The impressive craft and attention to detail used to create this beguiling environment takes a moment to absorb and understand; as viewers take it in, layers of amusement and absurdity are revealed. The humor quickly turns dark, however, as the real-world implications of the colorful illustrations on the packaging are brought to mind; a sea bird eating bottle caps, a turtle trapped in six-pack rings.
“I’m trying to tell people about the foreverness of plastic and the permanence of the disposable,” the artist, puppet designer, and director Robin Frohardt said, leaning near a magazine rack (Bag Appetit, Bags Illustrated, Baggs.) Her Plastic Bag Store had originally been set to open in March but was postponed due to the pandemic, much like New York City’s own ban on plastic bags.
As visitors browse the space, the room darkens unexpectedly and staffers in blue grocery aprons efficiently transform it into a theater. The socially distanced audience is treated to an amusing, if increasingly distressing history, exploring where the idea of a “single-use” product came from, and the illusion that we can ever throw such an item permanently “away.”
A second video puppet show moves to the present day, featuring a lone museum custodial worker, her clear eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses, observing and cleaning up what we leave behind. After work, distressed by the correlation she’s seeing between the museum’s two-thousand-year-old Roman vases and the disposable plastic cups littering the museum pedestals, she sits down at home and pens a letter to the future. She puts it into a plastic bottle, inside a plastic bag, and into the trash.
The audience follows those objects through a calmly apocalyptic journey into the future, all the way to the puzzled scientist who discovers the artifacts thousands of years later, encased below a thick layer of ice (courtesy of the Second Ice Age, which, an informational display later informs visitors, hit the planet sometime after the Robot Wars).
The scientist — a charmingly mustached puppet in arctic gear — becomes exuberant: he’s discovered so many plastic objects, he reasons, that this substance must have been sacred to ancient civilizations. He expends great effort trying to decode the original purpose of soda cup lids (compass) and six-pack rings (decorative weaving, “quite beautiful,” he observes, reverently).
At the close of the show, staff in white suits come bursting out of the freezer section and usher the audience into a glowing plastic bag ice cave and on into a museum, where the plastic objects in the future had been put on display, along with their assumed meanings.
“He’s someone who has misinterpreted the value of it,” Frohardt said of the explorer, smiling slightly. “Why would we make so much of it if it wasn’t valuable to us?” Near her, two enraptured toddlers stuff plastic bags into the Plastic Time Machine; visitors insert a plastic trash item into a chute, punch in a future date, and then retrieve the object to see what it will look like in hundreds or thousands of years. The joke, of course, and the bitter truth, is that the plastic object always looks the same.
The Plastic Bag Store is an experience that’s charming, whimsical, and deeply depressing in equal measure, which Frohardt intended. “There is great humor to be found in the pitfalls of capitalism,” she said in a press release about the show. “And I find that humor and satire can be powerful tools for social criticism especially with issues that feel too sad and overwhelming to confront directly."
To visit the Plastic Bag Store, you must register beforehand to reserve a free spot for the 60-minute limited-capacity experience, which runs through November 7th. It is currently sold out and waitlist only; sign up for a waitlist slot here.