The title of Slipstream Theatre Initiative’s latest world premiere production, “Lost in Three Pines,” by Hopwood Award-winning U-M student Maxim Vinogradov, is drawn from a Russian idiom that means: to lose one’s way in broad daylight.
So it’s no surprise that the play will leave you feeling foggy and disoriented. This is, in fact, Vinogradov’s aim.
“Pines” – directed by Bailey Boudreau – begins with a handful of characters who stand in isolated rectangles of light on a darkened stage, facing the audience even when they’re speaking to each other. (Ryan Ernst is the show’s technical director.) Lyuba (Tiaja Sabrie) is the wife of advertising exec Misha (Brenton Herwat), and she must field calls from Misha’s confused, aging mother (Linda Rabin Hammell) while also preparing to host a dinner for Misha’s arrogant boss Volkov (Ryan Ernst) and his cheerful wife Mourka (Mandy Logsdon).
This part of “Pines” has the feel of an absurdist feminist play, since bright-eyed student Zhenka’s (David Wilson) simple, typical-small-talk question to Lubya, “What do you do?”, thrusts Lubya into an existential quagmire. She questions if she, or anyone around her, is real, and contemplates the purpose and meaning of her stultifying, domestically bland existence – which sends her (and us) ever further down the rabbit hole.
For as Lubya ventures out to find answers to these big questions, the rectangles of light vanish, and she encounters characters from a sexy pulp novel (Logsdon as a madam), a western (Herwat as a weepy, remorseful cowboy), a mystery (Ernst as an emphatic foreign detective), and a fantasy (Wilson as a fairy). From this last interaction, Lubya inherits a book of her own stories, which sends her to an even more surreal locale, where she learns that she’s the lost princess Anastasia, and that she has magical powers; Herwat is her “sex monkey,” dressed in nothing but a gold, leaves-absolutely-nothing-to-the-imagination wrestling singlet; Ernst is Lubya’s human furniture; and Zhenka is her royal storyteller, decked out in a long, flowing cape. (Boudreau designed the show’s costumes, making a point of using the same polka dotted fabric as visual accents on the women’s costumes.)
But as a coda to these bizarre flights of fancy, the audience is led back to the theater’s lobby, which has been, during the show’s nearly 90 minute run time, transformed into a book-crammed, sumptuous cafe in a twinkly-lit, pine-thick wood – something Lubya dreamily mentions early on in “Pines” – where patrons read and order exotic, wildly imaginative meals. Lubya whips them all up from a handful of prosaic ingredients, she tells a bewildered patron (Wilson); and as he struggles to make sense of this, Lubya urges him to stop trying so hard to understand, and instead just embrace the madness in hopes of uncovering something new, something unexpected.
Which is, of course, “Pines”’ message writ large. Vinogradov has attempted, with this play, to not only render visible our constant intellectual desire to make sense of things, but also to argue that this drive to find logic in the illogical is little more than a pointless, wasteful exercise.
It’s an ambitious, risky, and sophisticated undertaking for a playwright – particularly one as young as Vinogradov – to make us experience, as an audience, what Lyuba is working through herself; and Vinogradov’s humor and quirky voice, underscored by Boudreau’s choices as director (and Sabrie’s fearless, all-in commitment to her off-kilter role), help leaven a play that might have otherwise been in danger of collapsing under the weight of its own agenda.
Yet as with nearly all plays of this nature, there’s at least a whiff of writerly self-indulgence that haunts “Pines,” so that it’s ultimately a play you intellectually appreciate more than love; and the “sex monkey” segment threatens to derail the whole when Herwat deliberately, repeatedly positions his highly exposed body so as to get a reaction – laughter, looking away, or breaking character – from his fellow castmates. In these moments, I became hyper-aware of the actors, and thus briefly lost track of the show’s characters.
One could argue, of course, that this is one example of the chaotic silliness that the play urges us to embrace without neurotically questioning it to death. Perhaps. But I would counter that by evening’s end, I felt more like I’d watched an interesting intellectual exercise than a gut-punch of theatrical insight.
Even so, “Pines” presents a thoughtful, wild experiment by a fast-rising local playwright.
And there are far, far worse ways to get lost for an evening.
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