Drifting slowly

By Paul Wozniak

World premiere play mixes in cinematic elements in ‘U.P.’

Friday, Feb. 8 — The title “U.P.” refers to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but it could refer to a hot air balloon, which — like the plot of “U.P.” — directionally drifts according to air currents before eventually landing in a random field. The world premiere show — co-written by Peter Mervis and the production’s director, Mark Colson — tells the tale of one man’s introspective odyssey as he takes a solo road trip from L.A. to the U.P. Aided by crisp video projections and a versatile, minimal set, “U.P.” seeks to marry cinematic style visuals with the clever ingenuity of stagecraft. But there’s not enough content to fill the hefty 2 hour run time, leaving stage pictures that often feel hollow and redundant.

At the start, John (Adam Sutherland) is emotionally adrift. He’s disconnected from his cushy, stressful office job, apathetic about his material comforts; and all but uninterested in his beautiful wife, Rita (Michelle Serje). He even lacks solace in his subconscious, in which he’s plagued nightly by an underwater nightmare. One day, he almost involuntarily drives east toward his former small-town family life and eventually north to the rural hospitality of Michigan’s U.P.

John is a blank slate who usually responds, “I don’t know,” whenever he’s asked a question. Sutherland capably connects with John’s dialogue, but struggles to make John’s abundant silence engaging.

With far less silence and far better dialogue, Serje’s performance is captivating and grounded, offering a flawed figure that demands real empathy. Featured actors like Sara Anne Ostrowski, Sadie Pappas and Kara O’Conner take full advantage of their offbeat characters injecting much-needed comic relief in naturally understated doses.

Matthew Imhoff’s stunning set design calls to mind a giant jewelry box made of birch siding, with elements that pull out to become office furniture, an Irish pub and the interior of a car. Similarly, media designer Alison Dobbins’ video and digital projections against the set allow for faster scene changes and opportunities for visual storytelling that usually enhance the scenes.

Additional visual elements include ensemble cast members dressed head-to-toe in black, contorting or standing in as chairs or elevator walls. All of these ingredients add to the theatrical ambiance. But stage ninjas and video of landscapes and highway signs do little to advance the story beyond location.

Understandably, Colson’s script strives for originality and authenticity over genre formulas. Consequently, the lack of a conventional structure leaves a play that does not seem to know where it’s going, leading the audience to question whether they need to start steering.

%u2028Michigan State University Department of Theatre%u2028
Through Feb. 10%u2028
8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11:59pm Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday%u2028
Director pre-show discussion 1:15 p.m. Feb. 10%u2028
RCAH Auditorium (In Snyder-Phillips Hall), East Lansing
%u2028$15 regular/$13 seniors and faculty/$10 students%u2028
(517) 353-1982