Wrapping around a corner in Times Square, the storefront had been hidden in plain sight since the tail end of winter, when so much of the city’s creative life shut down, locked up and headed home to wait out the coronavirus.
The playwright, director and puppet designer Robin Frohardt, best known for a delectable little piece of puppet theater called “The Pigeoning,” had been putting the finishing touches on a new show inside. Part art installation, part immersive puppet play, “The Plastic Bag Store” was meant to open in March, its space tricked out to look like an eco-warrior parody of a well-stocked grocery.
Audiences would have been welcome to touch the faux merchandise (brightly colored replicas of fruits and vegetables, bakery items and more, all made from plastic waste), and invited to help arrange the seating at performance time. Puppeteers would have crowded close together to enact Frohardt’s wry dreamscape of a comedy, with shadow puppets to tell the bit that takes place in the ancient past, and bunraku puppets for the parts set in the contemporary world and the far-off future.
When the show finally did open, in late October, the installation that Frohardt designed was still the size of a roomy bodega, complete with deli counter and cigarette rack. But the live puppet play had become a beautifully filmed puppet play, and what would have been audiences of 50 had been whittled to a maximum of 12 — masked, socially distanced and so conditioned by the pandemic to be wary about surfaces that they didn’t need to be told not to touch the tantalizing piles of electric-green limes.
“We were going to put up signs,” Frohardt said from behind her mask on Thursday morning, near the produce section, “but it has not been an issue.”
Developed over four years and timed to coincide with the city’s new plastic bag ban — its enforcement was postponed in March and only implemented in October — “The Plastic Bag Store” is an emphatic work of activism that is also a wistful work of art. Timed tickets are free.
The 45-minute film — each act of which is shown on a different screen, in the part of the space where it would have taken place in the live performance — begins with Thad, a lazy young ancient who gets rich selling water in throwaway vases until he realizes the environmental error of his ways. But the warning he tries to leave for posterity, painted on a vase, eludes the 21st-century museum where it is on display.
This is where we meet Helen, a history-minded custodian who is forever cleaning up plastic trash, but who is hardly militant; at home, she slips on a pair of Crocs. Disheartened by the greed and shortsightedness of the present, she pens a missive to the future.
“Your extreme climate is probably our fault,” she writes, “and the only animals you probably have left to eat are jellyfish and cockroaches.” Then: “Sorry, I ran out of room on the postcard and had to finish this letter on the back of a CVS receipt.”
Helen puts her note in a plastic bottle, which is found many years later — after the “robot wars” — near the Equator, fished out of the ice by a man with extravagant eyebrows and fingerless gloves. The object piques in him an enchantingly baffled curiosity about our vanished era and its consumerist ways.
The show is only an hour long, but its narrative arc is impressively encompassing. With gorgeous original music by Freddi Price, lighting by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew and puppeteering by Andy Manjuck, Nick Lehane, Rowan Magee, Admiral Grey and Emma Wiseman, the level of artistry is high. Like “The Pigeoning,” this is puppetry made with adults in mind that is also suitable for children, particularly, in this case, those who are vigilant about climate change.
“I don’t really set out to make things all-ages,” said Frohardt, 39, who did theater in high school in Colorado Springs, studied painting at the University of Washington and got into puppetry in the early 2000s in San Francisco after she saw “this Charles Bukowski story about necrophilia, all in puppets, for a grown-up audience.” She thinks of her own work as “not not for kids.”
Surprisingly, this version of “The Plastic Bag Store” still manages to be a theatrical experience, with an audience gathered in a darkened space, where the soft hum of the ventilation system is unobtrusively reassuring.
Between acts of the film, people whisk in from the wings to change the scenery around us — the kind of transformation I hadn’t witnessed indoors since March, which made it unexpectedly moving. And when the film is done, a live actor (the very funny Tyler Gunther) appears, for the brief but delicious final segment of the show.
In its current form, it is not quite what Frohardt envisioned, but it is a highly successful compromise. The impulse to film the puppet play arrived with the shutdown — “I just knew we had to capture it before some other terrible thing happened,” she said — but the result is more cinematic and reflective of her vision than she expected. (Robert Kolodny is the director of photography.)
“It’s very much how I saw the show in my head initially,” said Frohardt, who lives in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. “It doesn’t really feel like a consolation prize to me.”
The one thing that’s a little bit painful for her is that the pandemic means she isn’t sharing this moment with all of the people she imagined she would be — including her family in Colorado.
“That is the hardest part: not having my parents,” she said, “and not having a room full of my friends, and then having a party at the end to celebrate four years of work.
“But I can’t complain,” she added quickly. “I feel so grateful. So many artists lost so many opportunities. I feel lucky that it’s happening at all.”
Commissioned by Times Square Arts, “The Plastic Bag Store” inhabits a part of Manhattan enduringly in the glare of electronic billboards, yet ringed by dormant theaters and shuttered restaurants. It’s nowhere near as busy as it used to be. But it’s not deserted, either.
It is a rare thing right now to see a show in Times Square. And for once it is actually nice to hear the sounds of traffic bleeding in: signs of life.
The Plastic Bag Store
Through Nov. 7 at 20 Times Square, Manhattan; arts.timessquarenyc.org