Tuesday, March 26, 2013

"Bohemian Flats" at nimbus theatre

The chance to experience a new theater and learn about Minnesota history? I'm in! Last night I attended my first play at nimbus theatre in Northeast Minneapolis (I really wanted to see their production of The Cripple of Inishmaan last fall after seeing A Behanding in Spokane by the same playwright, Martin McDonagh, but didn't quite make it). I love checking out new theater spaces, and in this case an unassuming exterior leads to a quite nice space inside. Their current production is the new original play Bohemian Flats, written and directed by Co-Artistic Director Liz Neerland, about the life of immigrants living in a Minneapolis community of that name in the late 19th and early 20th century. Bohemian Flats was located on the west bank of the Mississippi, at the site of what is now the Washington Avenue bridge. Residents built their own little wooden houses, and those on the lower levels moved out every spring when the river rose. The city of Minneapolis eventually cleared out the flats in the name of progress, but the community lives on in this play which is less of a cohesive story and more of a series of vignettes about life in the flats throughout its 60-year history. More globally, it's a common story of our immigrant ancestors who came to this country to make a better life for themselves and their families.

the cast of Bohemian Flats
The play opens in the 1930s with a man who has lived in the flats for 50 years, in the house his father-in-law built. He reminisces about the people who lived in the once busy community (it housed a church and a saloon, two things every town needs), and the good times and bad they experienced. The drab little wooden shanties soon come to life with flowers and people, and we see scenes of weddings, tragedies (the 1878 explosion at the Washburn A. Mill, where many of the residents worked), arriving immigrants, and community life. Several scenes include immigrants reading letters from family members left behind in the old country, or writing to them of their new life in America. The eight-member ensemble ably brings these many characters to life. I found myself looking for a little more follow-up on some of the stories (did the woman's son survive the mill explosion? did the young girl ever make it out of the flats?), or a return to the man from the beginning of the play for some sort of closure. There's no one thread to follow through the play, no one person to grab on to and become emotionally invested in as you follow their story. Still, the play effectively brings the audience into the world of Bohemian Flats, a unique community on the very shore of the river, but with a universal story of the immigrant life.

Helping to create this world are the set (by Brian Hesser, also one of the ensemble members) and costumes (by Andrea M. Gross). Walking into the theater space at Nimbus, I was immediately charmed by the rustic shanty town on stage, which later blossoms with life as flower beds and other decorations are added. The costumes reflect a plain, hard-working people, with people from "up in the city" differentiated by their somewhat more distinguished clothing.

Bohemian Flats is playing now through April 7 at nimbus theatre. Check it out for an entertaining lesson on local history.

a historical photo of the community know as Bohemian Flats

a historical photo of the community know as Bohemian Flats