There’s a fascinating sequence in the middle of Nimbus Theatre’s latest production, In The Age of Paint and Bone, exploring some of the modern history of studying the ancient paintings of cave dwelling people on cave walls. In one of the cavemen sequences in the past, an ensemble member actually creates a cave painting while we watch. It’s a tricky balance of an actor interacting with video projected on a screen inserted in one of the set’s cave walls. Caitlin Hammel’s video is cartooning in this drawing, based on research of actual cave paintings. But the actor is working in tandem with the video, creating the impression that the painting is coming out of the caveman’s brush. This bit of trickery is all the more impressive because the video appears to give the cave person time to pause, to contemplate their next move with paint on stone. The whole thing seems almost spontaneous, neither rushed nor overly rehearsed. It’s intriguing to watch, and quite possibly the high point of the evening.
“Unfortunately our caveman ancestors didn’t leave us many clues.”
It pains me to write this review. Because I like Nimbus and the people who make it run, a lot. The Nimbus Theatre space is home not just to Nimbus but dozens of scrappy little theater companies around town, some of whom only do a show every now and again, or are just trying to get up and running as a new group. Some of the best theater I’ve seen in the Twin Cities, I’ve seen in the Nimbus space. Nimbus itself is an adventurous company tackling challenging ideas and filtering them through the lens of theater. All of this goes by way of saying that I wished I liked Nimbus Theatre’s new original production, In The Age of Paint and Bone, more than I did. But when the notes in the program are more compelling than the production they’re about, that’s a bit of a problem.
“Are they depictions of the past, or requests for the future?”
In The Age of Paint and Bone is an ensemble created piece under the direction of co-Artistic Director Liz Neerland centering on the discovery of two caves full of ancient cave paintings that confounded the scientific thinking of their time and continue to maintain a good deal of their mystery even today. In 1879 Spain, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola (Brian O’Neal) and his young daughter Maria (Alyssa Perau) together explore the Altamira cave. While Marcelino searches the cave floor for artifacts of ancient man, Maria looks up and is the first to see the spectacular paintings covering the cave walls.
“What’s the point of the caves existing if no one can enter them?”
Marcelino shares the cave discovery with noted paleontologist Juan Villanova y Piera (Jeffery Goodson), who urges Marcelino to present his findings to gatherings of fellow scientists. Marcelino believes the paintings to be the work of our cave dwelling ancestors. However, the relatively new (at the time) theory of evolution from Charles Darwin caused many in the scientific community to doubt the ancient origin of the paintings. Taking Darwin’s theory to heart, a great many scientists believed this meant that things like art—a higher function of society—were beyond the capacity of our less evolved forebears. Marcelino was openly ridiculed by many for his belief in artists dwelling in caves. One particularly vocal critic was French scientist Emile Cartailhac (Derek Meyer). In fact, Marcelino died before he was able to see his belief in the origin of the cave paintings widely accepted by changing opinion in the scientific community.
“It’s our cave. We must protect it.”
Cartailhac made a great show of apologizing for his earlier slighting of Marcelino’s theories, going so far as to publish a paper on the topic, and touring to spread the word of his change of heart. He explored the cave in person alongside fellow Frenchman Abbe Henri Breuil (Erin Denman), a priest and archeologist known for his study of cave paintings. Maria got to see her father’s views vindicated, and also got to watch Cartailhac take a lot of credit for bringing people around.
“Maybe this is not my battle to win.”
Still more cave paintings were discovered in 1940 in Lascaux, France by two teenage boys following their unfortunate dog who had fallen into a hole. Marcel Ravidat and Jacques Marsal (Timothy Daly, Shira Levenson) brought the cave to the attention of the general public, and Marsal even remained on as a guide and interpreter at the cave until it was closed to the public in the early 1960s.
“He died disappointed because no one would believe him.”
In addition to these two plotlines, the ensemble also all take turns doing double duty as the cave painting artists of pre-history. These sections of the show were wordless, performed largely through movement set to music (sometimes an orchestral soundtrack, sometimes the rhythmic pounding of human hands on rock and wood and animal skins). We get the occasional grunt and a whole lot of storytelling through interpretive dance.
“Your apology certainly is keeping you busy.”
These three narrative threads don’t share equal weight but they all co-exist in the same cave space. Also making their way through the caves are four modern day tour guides, who periodically address the audience and lay out the larger questions to be explored surrounding the paintings on these cave walls. In a playful bit of pre-show improv, the tour guides greet the audience and beckon them up on stage (reinforcing the invitation in the program), to discuss the cave and allow everyone to see Brian Hesser’s impressive cave set up close.
“I wish he were alive to hear you say that.”
The cave set takes full advantage of Nimbus’ ample stage space, extending far back and way up the sides on multiple levels. It not only gives lots of cave wall space for all those paintings, it provides many different entrances and exits for characters from different timelines, and also offers up many interesting places for lighting designer John Kirchhofer to hide lights and cast shadows. The cave people often exist in half light and rely more heavily on Forest Godfrey’s sound design to give them weight and context.
“Why did they paint on the wails?”
Here’s the thing—the production itself is only a little over an hour long. There’s both too much and too little going on in that space of time. If you’ll forgive the metaphor, given that we’re talking about cave paintings, the narrative canvas here is overcrowded. However, at the same time, none of the characters in this overpopulated cave seem to have any real depth or detail to them. They exist, events occur, but there don’t seem to be any stakes or consequences. No one appears to feel anything deeper than an intellectual conviction about something that happens. There’s no emotional punch. At the same time, there’s also not much in the way of intellectual exploration of the larger ideas going on. There’s a sketched in outline of potential plotlines, there are a number of large questions asked, but In The Age of Paint and Bone doesn’t really dig into any of them. It’s not that I expect answers. It’s clear there aren’t definitive answers to be had here. The artists in these caves and their intent are lost to time, but their artwork remains.
“Come down here. You need to see this.”
What is the purpose of art? What is the purpose of communication? What is the purpose of storytelling? What is the purpose of community? Has humankind really learned anything over the centuries? Are we really that far removed from our cave dwelling ancestors in terms of sophistication of thought? In The Age of Paint and Bone dances tantalizingly around the edges of such questions. It’s clear listening to the tour guides improv their welcome and introduction to the caves as the audience files in that everyone involved here is intrigued by the subject matter and that a lot of homework has gone into this project. The play just isn’t living inside the larger idea in a fully human way yet.
“We are looking for things left behind.”
In the end, all the timelines and characters bleed together in a final image that has real power. In fact it has more power in a strange way because you can’t quite put that image or the way it makes you feel into words. I could have done with a whole lot more of the past literally haunting the present and vice versa. The design team does a lot of the heavy lifting here, and the ensemble gives it their best effort but at the moment I think the structure of the piece is fighting them. Right now the clinical, literal, linear exercise of In The Age of Paint and Bone is keeping it from reaching much deeper than just below the surface. It’s a great idea. It’s just not a great piece of theater yet. The evolution continues.
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