Prepare to be submerged. Nimbus Theatre's stage area has been strikingly transformed by designer Brian Hesser to look like the inside of a cave. Playwright-director Liz Neerland's "In the Age of Paint and Bone" is the result of a workshop collaboration with actors. It works like a theatricalized documentary where present-day tour guides, explorers of decades long past, and tribal people of ages ago take keen interest in cave paintings.
This flawed, yet captivating play shifts between different time periods but is anchored in the true story of Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola (Brian O'Neal) and his daughter, Maria (Alyssa Perau), the first known modern explorers of Spain's Altamira Cave in 1879.
It is Maria who first sees the play's central image of a bison-like animal on a cave wall. At points throughout onlookers express their thoughts about this and other cave paintings.
Unfortunately for Sautuola, he lacks credentials to validate his strong view that the paintings qualify as serious art. Celebrated French prehistoric studies specialist Emile Cartailhac (Derek Meyer) and others pile onto him about the implausibility of unevolved primitive folks' capability of creating masterful art. At the time Charles Darwin's evolution theory had mesmerized the scientific realm. (Carthailhac ultimately admitted he was mistaken.) Indeed, this theoretical conflict was dramatic but Neerland's dialogue often turns didactic.
Discussion continues as the action moves to a cave in France in the 1940s. Interspersed throughout the 70-minute piece are ghostly scenes where ensemble members viscerally portray primitive people dressed in animal skins (Mary C. Woll, costume designer). John Kirchhofer's lighting, Caitlin Hammel's video design and Forest Godfrey's sound design are hauntingly evocative. Though the play's structure is disjointed because of too much "back and forth" between time periods, the production still raises thoughtful questions as it transports and enchants.
John Townsend is a Minneapolis writer