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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Canopic Jar of My Sins
Swandive Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Rogue Prince and A Winter's Tale

Nicole Goeden and Mairead Koehler
Photo by Dan Norman
The first thing I needed to know was, what the heck is a canopic jar? So, if like me, you have forgotten some of your "Intro to Ancient Civilizations" curriculum, here is an explanation, from the almighty source, Wikipedia: "Canopic jars were used by the ancient Egyptians during the mummification process to store and preserve the viscera of their owner for the afterlife. They were commonly either carved from limestone or were made of pottery."

Right off the bat, then, the stratospheric level of irony running through Justin Maxwell's newest play, The Canopic Jar of My Sins, is in evidence, for the canopic jars used in this rather messy, but thoroughly engrossing pitch-black comedy are plastic. The irony? The sin for which the central character, Ralph Wiley, is on trial is the invention of plastic. The play, depicting Wiley's trial and its aftermath, is being given its world premiere production by Swandive Theatre.

The real Ralph Wiley is credited with the invention, not of plastic, but of a form of plastic called saran, which he invented by accident while attempting to clean a lab sink as an employee at Dow Chemical in 1933. The filmy substance was applied to military and industrial uses until 1953 when it became a household word as Saran Wrap, the brand name Dow gave its then-new plastic wrap that revolutionized leftovers. In The Canopic Jar of My Sins, Wiley is held responsible for the plague of plastic in our oceans and waterways that cause the death of countless animals and the despoliation of our landscape. The panel of judges comprises The Angel of Canopic Jars, an oil-slicked dead albatross called the Gooney Revenant, and Roger Waters, the Roger Waters, one of the co-founders of the rock group Pink Floyd. An odd collection to be sure, each with their own approach to pursuing the case.

Wiley's defense is that when he stumbled upon plastic he had no way of knowing what forms it would take and what damage it would cause, but the judges insist that since it is his invention he is culpable. Culpable, Wiley offers, but not guilty, setting up a fascinating moral and legal tango. Act two finds Wiley on a beach in Easter Island. There he encounters the last remaining Easter Islander, who is determined to uphold the tradition of carving giant monolithic sculptural heads, and the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the effort to develop the nuclear bomb. The Angel of Canopic Jars pays some visits as well, and seems to be subjecting Wiley to some sort of a test of moral rectitude.

Maxwell has come up with a brilliant concept and written some sizzling and often hilarious dialogue. Co-directors Meg DiSciorio and Damon Runnals stage the play with a wonderful physical production that drives home the playwright's points, and found actors who give energized, engaging performances that underscore their symbolic position in the play's dialectic. Why, then, does it all feel so messy?

For one thing, Maxwell plays loose with the facts. The judges charge Ralph Wiley with creating plastic, while in fact, credit for the invention of the first form of plastic generally goes to Alex Parkes in 1862. In 1907 Leo Hendrik Baekeland invented Bakelite, the first usable plastic solid. Many other creators and creations dot the timeline between them and Wiley's eureka 1933 moment, and many more since, so why place the onus on him? If the judges must insist that the guilty party be named, why pick on Wiley, who stumbled upon his invention quite by accident, rather than someone who acted with intent? Their arguments feel spurious, despite the wit with which they are presented and the righteous anger over the state of our environment, particularly in the moving testimony from the dead albatross.

In the second act things really unravel. A shaggy dog history of Easter Island is used to concoct a story about why only one Islander remains—in fact, the 2017 census counted 7,750 residents. The Last Easter Islander's obsession with spurning survivalist tactics in favor of carving monolithic sculptures is a spoof on blind religious faith as a force that precludes taking effective action. Is blind faith the Easter Islander's sin? If so, the Last Easter Islander doesn't seem to feel punished by carrying on that faith.

J. Robert Oppenheimer is depicted as an explosion-happy bore, tossing down party poppers by the score, each causing a bang and a hail of confetti. The real Oppenheimer expressed profound regrets for his part in creating the atomic bomb and spoke ardently against nuclear proliferation to the degree that it cost him his career. He was nothing like the nudnik in this play, who is comical, but to what purpose?

The Angel makes several visits to the island to check up on the three inhabitants and the state of their penitence. I really tried to follow the logic in the Angel's demands, but at the end was left about as confused by the Angel's judgement as Wiley is about the whole affair. I generally enjoy theater of the absurd, and this play fits handily into that genre, but it lacks the vital ingredient of imbedded meaning masked within its absurdity.

However, the stage is replete with whiz-bang performances and amazing design work. Nicole Goeden remains consistently earnest as defendant Wylie, offering sincere regrets for the harm plastic has caused the natural world, but maintaining the logic that says he is not the responsible party. Katie Kaufmann is lavishly magisterial as the Angel, speaking in the pompous tones of a 1910 British butler, while not being above descending from her perch to give the defendant a swift kick. Bethany McHugh is obnoxiously arrogant and slickly cool as Roger Waters, deflecting responsibility for damage his high-consumption rock star lifestyle inflicted on the environment because, hey man, he played for charity at the Live 8 concert in 2005. She conveys a mix of arrogance, cluelessness, and existential panic as J. Robert Oppenheimer and pulls it off with panache.

Mairead Koehler makes the most stunning impression as the Gooney Revenant and as the Last Easter Islander. As the dead bird, she speaks in squawks, delivering its lines in phlegmatic outbursts and animating its crippled body with fierce jerking motions. As the Islander, she conveys wide-eyed naivete in her devotion to gods and the traditional ways that no longer make a shard of sense. Koehler's performance is highly physical, displays keen comic timing, and creates a uniquely whole character.

The Canopic Jar of My Sins is staged in the very small side-room at the Crane Theatre. This tiny venue feels even more compressed thanks to Sean McCardle's brilliant rendition of a Pacific floating trash island. Blue plastic tarps cover all the walls and the floor, and everything is festooned with plastic shopping bags, take out containers, and other artifacts of the plastic epoch. For act two, McCardle devised a marvelous Easter Island set, with giant sculptural heads cheekily peeking out from behind a mountain formed from a bunched-up tarp, while cork flooring indicates a sand beach.

Lisa Imbryk's costumes perfectly suit the play's absurdist spirit. Her Gooney Revenant's suit, with an oil-slicked feathery collar and a sliced open front that displays the mounds of plastic on which the poor bird has choked, is flat out brilliant, and the Easter Islander's "I Lost My Head on Easter Island" t-shirt is a hoot. The Angel's long white gown, torn and stained by oil slicks at the hem, is splendid, and the Angelic crown, created out of empty plastic soda bottles fastened together at sharp angles, is stunning. Kalen Keir provides an evocative soundscape, and Jesse Cogswell's lighting design designates shifting moods even within the small playing area.

With such inspired design work, strong performances, and some crisp dialogue—as when the Angel tells Wylie, "It is too late for your species to survive, but not too late for you to be punished"—it's a shame that The Canopic Jar of My Sins is not more coherent as a whole. All the more so because it addresses an issue of grave urgency, with discussion of the tipping point beyond which the planet cannot be saved (the play suggests a very specific event) and who bears guilt for our ecological calamity.

Of course, attributing guilt will not solve the problems, but the play posits a situation that is already hopeless, so there is no call issued to change our planetary ways before all is lost. It is implied, however, by a poll in the lobby that asks audience members leaving the play if they have been inspired to change behaviors. Promoting such change is a vital endeavor, and I sincerely hope it yields positive results. That, along with the artistry invested in this production, make The Canopic Jar of My Sins a very worthwhile enterprise, even if, using a dramaturgical yardstick, it falls very short.

The Canopic Jar of My Sins, presented by Swandive Theatre, runs through October 19, 2019, at the Crane Theater, 2303 Kennedy Street N.E., Minneapolis MN. Tickets: Pay what the play is worth—see the play first, then pay what it is worth to you. Cash, checks, and credit cards accepted. For information, visit

Playwright: Justin Maxwell; Co-Directors and Properties: Meg DiSciorio and Damon Runnals; Scenic Design: Sean McArdle; Costume Design: Lisa Imbryk; Sound Design: Kalen Keir; Lighting Design: Jesse Cogswell; Fight Choreography: Annie Enneking; Stage Manager: Jamie Case.

Cast: Nicole Goeden (Ralph Wiley), Katie Kaufmann (The Angle of Canopic Jars), Mairead Koehler (The Gooney Revenant/The Last Easter Islander), Bethany McHugh (Roger Waters/Robert Oppenheimer).