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Richard Crawford (center) and Matthew Gray (left)
in Signals of Distress
(Photo: © Nelson Rockwood)
The troupe presenting the new show Signals of Distress at the Soho Repertory Theater is called The Flying Machine, a young Brooklyn-based group of actors trained largely with Jaques Lecoq, the recently deceased French physical theater master. What we feel by the end of this performance is the troupe's dedication to their craft. The fact that the production does not add up to a compelling story or viewing experience doesn't detract from the feeling that these young artists are developing voices that will benefit the theater in the long run.

Signals of Distress is adapted from the novel of the same name by Jim Crace, the prizewinning British author who received praise for this book from The New York Times Book Review. The intense difficulty of adapting novels for film or stage is felt acutely here, as director Joshua Carlebach pursues his own adaptation through characterizations and subplots that might have been satisfying in the novel but haven't had room to become compelling in only 80 stage minutes. In fact, we get more from the inventive staging and performance techniques employed by the troupe than from the story it tries to tell. This makes for a tantalizing but disappointing show, and one that provokes some worthwhile questions. For example: Shouldn't study of new stage techniques also include study of old ones as well? Like their artistic antecedents The Wooster Group, The Flying Machine is admirably attempting to present work based on a mixture of the two, but they're learning the more traditional styles through trial and error.

One older stage technique that still works is to present a protagonist who has flaws with which we can identify. Aymer Smith (Richard Crawford), the British man at the center of this piece set in 1830, is a whining hand-wringer whose means of justifying his appearance in the coastal burg of Wherrytown, England is an apology for cancelling a business relationship. Though he is shipwrecked there, Wherrytown was Smith's final destination on behalf of his London family's soap-making firm; he had chosen to personally give the townsfolk the bad news that, due to a new industrial process, his firm no longer requires the sea kelp on which the town's economy depends. Why would he travel so far to deliver bad tidings firsthand? Smith's explanation is rather odd: He describes himself as an "amender," or someone who attempts to keep the universe in balance by making vigorous amends to offset any harm done by his actions.

This isn't a bad literary conceit, but as drama, it doesn't work well. For one thing, Smith's version of amends is to deliver bad news, not to offer any specific reparations, and then to involve himself in local affairs in a haughty, meddlesome, self-righteous manner. Among his many less than attractive traits, there is a positive one -- his willingness to do what he sees as right -- but it's almost wholly undermined by his myopia, vanity, insensitivity, prudishness, moral posturing, and plain naïveté. Rather than thinking "if not for his vanity, he would be a great man," we end up thinking "if not for his meddling, we could all go home."

After the shipwreck, Smith is lodged at the town's only inn, a nameless establishment that he fears is too crude for his sensibilities. There we meet a relatively genteel Canadian couple, Katie (Jessica Green) and Robert (Gregory Steinbruner), whose role in the proceedings is to introduce us to Smith's dreams of marrying someone like Katie. He evidently is not only a prude but a virgin in (at least) his mid-thirties; throughout the production, slow-motion sequences depict Smith's heroic fantasies of vanquishing foes and claiming female prizes, to insufficiently comical effect.

The only compelling action that Smith takes occurs after an American ship also wrecks, bringing ashore a crew including a slave who is lodged overnight in a stable while the rest of the men are bedded at the inn. Smith objects to the condition of the African and lets him out of the pen at night. While a sideplot romance blooms between one of the ship's mates (played by Steinbruner with a Southern accent that could use improvement) and a local girl named Miggy (also played by Green), Smith is questioned and harangued by the ship's captain (Matthew Gray) and several other crew and townsfolk about the crime they suspect he committed. Eventually, and without enough clarity or inevitability, we reach the show's predictable conclusion.

That said, among the lovely techniques employed to tell this tale of questionable stage-worthiness is the use of several see-through scrims that put a gauzy layer between the audience and the action, as though we are watching history (or a period film) through the fuzzy lens of years. Marisa Frantz's spare set works well with Joshua Bradford's and Raquel Davis's lighting design to add to this feeling. Many actors play dual roles, even playing animals. These scenes are among the most magical of the show as Leqoc's influence is most keenly felt; while the sight of a young woman as a dog on a leash in several scenes is a bit unsettling, one quickly comes to understand that this is about the artistry of shedding identity and not a gender-based statement.

Bill Ware's sound design is highly professional; he overdoes the wave sounds and the music only occasionally. But there are two -- count 'em, two -- scenes of villagers dancing at old-time parties with fiddlin' and hollerin'. Several in the audience looked at their companions with knowing resignation when these began; I've seen dozens of such sequences in various shows and have yet to learn a thing about what I was watching from any of them. The Flying Machine has the techniques to make innovative theater and a laudable desire to tell stories. Let's hope that they learn to fuse Anglo-American storytelling and Continental presentation styles to create a powerful new work.


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