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A CurtainUp Review
Signals of Distress

by Les Gutman

You can go ahead and lower the red flags that immediately rise when you hear of a new play that has been adapted for the stage from a novel. In Signals of Distress, The Flying Machine manages to avoid the usual foibles and deliver a clear, economical and fascinating account of the story Jim Crace tells in his book of the same name. It's filled with well-developed characters, more-than-adequate context, humor and what I take to be this company's signature style.

We travel with Aymer Smith (Richard Crawford) to the isolated British seaport of Wherrytown in the first half of the Nineteenth Century. Smith arrives from London bearing some bad news: his family's soapmaking business, which has relied on Wherrytown's kelp for years, no longer has a need for the local resource. Meanwhile, the passengers and crew of an American ship, damaged in a storm at sea, seek shelter while the necessary repairs are made.

The unusual confluence of out-of-town visitors opens a small but densely-packed window, remarkable in its detail, that succeeds in exploring matters small (a pair of peculiar romantic forays), medium (the economics and culture of the village) and large (anti-slavery sentiment in Britain, including a moral quandary of the highest order). Smith, an almost indescribable literary creation who is at once well-meaning, foolish, priggish and inept, foments much of what transpires, including run-ins with both his local business conduit (Jason Lindner) and the ship's captain (Matthew Gray).

Excellent performances all around lubricate the material; Mr. Crawford sets the standard, capturing Smith's complex character (he is both quirkily heroic and yet fundamentally loathsome) beautifully. Joshua Carlebach's adaptation of the book succeeds in revealing most all of the themes of the underlying material, and his staging (a bit abstract at times) is effective. He (and some other members of the company, including Mr. Crawford) studied at École Jacques Lecoq; though that influence is revealed in this work, it very much has its own sensibility: a somewhat stylized movement-based approach that works quite well.

Marisa Frantz's rough-hewn set design is simple, and employs several scrims, fashioned to more or less suggest sails, to greater or lesser success. (A partial downstage scrim, which seems to be a design choice increasingly in vogue, is more annoying than useful.) Theresa Squire's are especially evocative of time and place (which is really what this production is all about), and the joint lighting design of Josh Bradford and Raquel Davis is equally apt. Bill Ware's abundant sound design also goes far in setting mood.

Signals of Distress
Created and Performed by The Flying Machine
Adapted from Jim Crace's novel and directed by Joshua Carlebach
with Richard Crawford, Matthew Gray, Jessica Green, Jason Lindner, Kathryn Philip, Gregory Steinbruner, Tami Stronach and Kevin Varner Set Design: Marisa Frantz
Lighting Design: Josh Bradford and Raquel Davis
Costume Design: Theresa Squire
Sound design: Bill Ware

Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes with no intermission
A production of The Flying Machine and Soho Rep
Soho Rep, 46 Walker Street (Broadway/Church)
Telephone: (212) 206-1515
WED - SAT @7:30, extra performances on 12/1 and 12/3, no performance on 11/16 or 11/28; $15
Opening November 15, 2002, closing December 5, 2002 -- extended to 12/31/02
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 11/13/02 performance

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