Wednesday, December 12, 2018

"The River Becomes Sea" by nimbus theatre at the Crane Theater

In nimbus theatre's latest original work, The River Becomes Sea, they explore the world of post-Civil War New Orleans through the complicated lives of one family. New Orleans is always a fascinating place, with its diverse peoples, cultures, and art, and its complicated relationship with water (see also the excellent HBO series Treme). But as playwright Josh Cragun notes in the playbill, the post-Civil War era is particularly fascinating; a time when there is new freedom for African Americans, and a backlash of fear from those who backed the failed Confederacy. Add to this the arrival of a long-lost sister, banished after a scandal, and an impending flood, and you have more than enough drama to fill 85 minutes. nimbus does that, but in an unhurried, lyrical, Southern sort of pace.

The show is narrated by a wealthy, elegant, older gentleman named Cornelius; this is in effect his memory play, and not all memories are happy. He opens and closes the show, philosophizing, and breaks into the action a few times to comment on what's happening. It's a nice device through which tell the story, especially since Cornelius is beautifully played by Jon Stentz, with all the melancholy, gravitas, spirit, and Southern drawl required. Cornelius is the father of three grown daughters, Imogene is out of town and only referred to, Agatha (Sarah Broude) is a recent widow whose son Tristan (Nicholas Nelson) is taking over the family business, and Eliza (Heidi Berg) is the prodigal daughter. She left town 20 years ago due to a scandal that is slowly revealed, and feels safe to return now that her mother has died. Turns out Cornelius kept in touch with her over the years, and Agatha is eager to repair their relationship. Eliza is a published author living in NYC, invited to speak at a ball to raise money for Irish immigrant Margaret's (Nicole Goeden) orphanage. Eliza travels with her assistant Diana (Lana Bean), a young black woman (the scandal isn't hard to guess). The problem arises with her nephew Tristan, who isn't so accepting of the new order of things, and tells family friend Benjamin (Richard D. Woods), a black man, that he likes him because "he knows where the lines are" (Tristan's fear and rhetoric are eerily similar to today's). The threatened levees are not the only impending doom in this story.

Margaret (Nicole Goeden) and Agatha (Sarah Broude)
dressed for the ball (photo courtesy of nimbus)
The set design (by Ursula K. Bowden) feels very Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, with hanging vines, white columns, and a fountain. In fact the whole show has that languid and melancholy sort of feel. The simple set is contrasted by the extravagant and rich-looking costumes (designed by Rubble&Ash, aka Andrea M. Gross and Barb Portinga). Agatha is still wearing the antebellum hoop skirts, which her fashionably bustled sister calls a relic of the past. The men also look snazzy in their sharp suits and hats. When there was talk of a ball I thought, oh I hope they dress for the ball! They do, and it's gorgeous.

grandfather (Jon Stentz) tries to pass on his wisdom to
grandson Tristan (Nicholas Nelson), who won't hear it
(photo courtesy of nimbus)
nimbus' original work always explores some interesting topic, usually at a time in the past, with themes that resonate today. In The River Becomes Sea we have the glorious and unique city that is New Orleans, and themes of intermingling cultures, and backlash against advances in Civil Rights. Sound familiar?

The River Becomes Sea closes this weekend, with just four more performances at the Crane Theater in Northeast Minneapolis, nimbus' new home as of the last few years, that also hosts many other theater companies on its two stages. Click here for more info and to purchase tickets at the very reasonable cost of $12-15.