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In the Age of Paint and Bone Looks at the Mystery of Ancient Art

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This may seem like I'm damning the latest Nimbus Theater show with faint praise, but the set is most definitely the most impressive thing about In the Age of Paint and Bone.

It's not that the show itself slouches along. The hour-long exploration of the ancient cave paintings that offer a link to our long-ago (as much as 40,000 years) ancestors has its moments, but the set itself is the star.

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Brian Hessler has created a cave within Nimbus's stage that patrons are invited -- encouraged -- to explore before the show opens. It's a dynamic, striking piece that takes up most of the theater's large space, full of nooks, crannies, and details.

Nimbus's cave stands in for several of the ones discovered across Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. The play follows two streams. In one, we see the space as they are rediscovered. In the other, we have guesses as to what the paintings meant to the ancient people who created them.

It can only be guesses, but a lot of territory is covered: religious rites, pre-battle inspiration, a way to teach the new generation about the past. One lesson you can clearly take from this is that our motivation to create art hasn't changed all that much over the eons.

Those moments are the show at its best. The stage is darkened, seemingly lit only by flickering firelight. Before us, humanity's first attempts to bring order to the world through art unfolds. It's striking and sometimes moving to watch.

The rediscovery scenes are more problematic. Our interest in these various characters only goes so far, as they are often incidental to the intriguing mystery the ancients left behind. The company's often stiff acting doesn't help. Neither does a script that tends to go over the same ideas and incidents multiple times without enough variation to make them interesting.

Several modern-day scenes aren't as rough, but they still tend to present material that has been gone over before, or could have been woven in more artfully.

In the Age of Paint and Bone is a worthy subject to explore, even if it falters in telling multiple stories along the way.

IF YOU GO:

In the Age of Paint and Bone Through March 1 Nimbus Theater Central Ave. NE., Minneapolis $10-$15 For tickets and more information, call 612-548-1380 or visit online.