Saturday, February 21, 2015

"In the Age of Paint and Bone" at nimbus theatre

nimbus theatre's newest original theatrical creation, In the Age of Paint and Bone, deals with the very oldest of recorded history. Tens of thousands of years ago, the earliest humans painted on the walls of caves, many of which have been rediscovered in the last century or two. Co-Artistic Director Liz Neerland directs and wrote this piece, along with the ensemble in their unique workshop process. It's a fascinating subject, and one of those plays that makes me want to know more (fortunately the playbill includes a reading list, gotta love that!). I've long been fascinated by the pre-historical era, and used to be a bit obsessed with the Earth's Children series (aka The Clan of the Cave Bear books), which are part cheesy romance novel and part historically accurate description of a time long past. In the Age of Paint and Bone brings this era to life, but subtly and not in sharp focus, as we don't really know what these pre-historic people were like. The play also looks at the people who first rediscovered the paintings, and what they mean to us today.

In the Age of Paint and Bone takes place in three time periods, the present, the ancient past, and the recent past when the caves were rediscovered. The nimbus stage has been transformed into a cave, with paintings either drawn on the wall or projected. Before the show the audience is invited to explore the area, while actors, in the form of museum tour guides, answer questions. The play begins as a presentation in a museum, and we flash back to the discovery of the cave paintings in Altamira, Spain in 1879. An amateur explorer and his daughter find the paintings, but his belief that the paintings are ancient are disbelieved, until he's finally proven right after his death. We also witness the accidental discovery of the cave paintings in Lascaux, France in 1940 by a couple of teenage boys. But the most fascinating scenes of the play are the flash-way-backs to the people who created this art. The light is dim, music is playing, and we never hear them speak (perhaps they didn't speak in the way we currently do). But we see them painting (including a cool trick of projection that shows the lines of one of the drawings appearing as the artist moves his brush), performing rituals, and communicating with each other.

a painting of a bison in Altamira
The seven members of the ensemble (Timothy Daly, Erin Denman, Jeffery Goodson, Shira Levenson, Derek Meyer, Brian O'Neal, and Alyssa Perau) play multiple characters in all time periods, and change in and out of the varied costumes so quickly it feels like there are more than just seven actors. Brian Hesser's multi-level cave-like set, Mary C. Woll's ancient, period, and modern costumes, and Caitlin Hammel's inventive video design all combine to define these specific worlds.

This piece doesn't answer any questions about why the paintings were created (probably for the same reason anyone creates art, which are many and varied), but rather it plants a seed of interest in the audience, or at least it did in me. What a different life our long ago ancestors lived, but maybe they're not that different from us than we think. Minnesota has its own version of cave paintings in the Jeffers Petroglyphs, which are carvings rather than paintings, that I hope to visit someday. What fun this piece must have been to explore and create. I wish I could take a leave of absence from my day job to re-read the Clan of the Cave Bear books and some of those suggested in the playbill. But if you don't have time for that either, you can spend 70 minutes in nimbus theatre's exploration of the Age of Paint and Bone (playing now through March 1).

a progression of light in the three time periods
(photo by Mathieu Lindquist)