Books / Signals of Distress / Signals of Distress on stage


From The New York Times


Ingenuity Brings a Novel to the Stage


November 20, 2002



“Signals of Distress,” a 1995 novel by Jim Crace, is an unlikely candidate for adaptation to the stage. The novel is set in 1830 in an isolated and weather-buffeted town on the coast of northern England, a place so often fogbound that it seems literally hidden from the world. In addition, with its period vernacular and social decorum, what Mr. Crace rendered most scrupulously and deliciously is the sense of a place that feels uniquely remote. In other words, the strengths of the novel do not suggest the strengths of the theater. The movies, maybe, for the lush atmospherics, for the desolate scenery, for the power inherent in casting and close-ups. (Faces alone can entertain and inform.)


On the stage, though – especially Off Off Broadway, where space is limited and effects are restricted by low budgets – you wouldn't ordinarily see this kind of eerie emptiness credibly exploited. But that's precisely what is accomplished in the modest, lovely and resourceful new rendering of “Signals of Distress” at the SoHo Rep.


The show was created and is performed by a Brooklyn-based, Jacques Lecoq-influenced troupe, the Flying Machine. It has been performing since 1996, but I hadn't seen its work before, and my understanding is that “Signals of Distress” is more verbal and narratively straightforward than some of its previous projects. Even so, the company's emphasis on movement and mime, sound and light, simple, suggestive

props and other stage illusions is equal to any reliance on plot and dialogue.


Many in the versatile and winning cast of eight double or triple in roles that include a dog and cattle. And the director, Joshua Carlebach (who also wrote the script), has a fine creative eye for unpretentious, seductive stage pictures.


Mr. Crace’s novel tells the story of a serendipitous collision of cultures. When a rugged storm beaches two ships on the outskirts of Wherrytown, bringing to a wary

community a self-important and foolishly pedantic businessman from London and a boatload of American sailors, what results is an eccentric comedy of manners, though with several consequences that are not comic at all. Mr. Crace writes with idiosyncratic humanity and shrewd omniscience; his forays into the perspectives of the characters are often deadpan and wisely observant at once.


From the start of the Flying Machine production, however, the story is less compelling for its own sake than it is as a frame for the company’s stylistic drapery. With the minimal wooden props configured into footbridges, a rough-hewed inn and a ship's hull rocked by the sea, Mr. Carlebach has convincingly created a town that is its own whole world.


Augmenting the illusion is music both recorded (I thought I heard the strains of a Beethoven symphony) and live (one of the actors, Kevin Varner, is a folk-dance fiddler), and lighting that is both simple and evocative.


Most prominently there is a series of gauzy scrims across the stage, through which the audience views the play, and which function to render the town air mist-thick, the visibility hazy. The scrims also serve to layer the action of the play, helping to inform the audience that some scenes are being recalled from the past, set at a physical distance from the characters in the forefront, or even dreamed. The play’s designers – Marisa Frantz (set), Bill Ware (sound), Theresa Squire (costumes) and Josh Bradford and Raquel Davis (lighting) – have all done sharp, ingenious work.


The dreamer is the play’s central character, Aymer Smith, a London soap manufacturer without a head for his own business but with an insistent nose in everyone else's. A virgin in middle age, a man of pretentious manners and a nonstop talker whose highfalutin patter drives everyone to yearn to be out of his presence, Aymer is played by Richard Crawford with an entertaining grasp of the man's irritating qualities, but he still manages to elicit our compassion for his painful loneliness.


Other deft portrayals are turned in by Mr. Varner as a laconic handyman (he doubles as Aymer’s short-tempered brother and business partner, Matthias) and Kathryn Philip, who plays two townswomen – one fun loving, the other frightened – whose personalities reflect their diametrically opposed responses to the perpetually threatening loneliness of life in Wherrytown.


But it is also true that every member of the Flying Machine is an essential contributor to the striking and satisfying theatricality of “Signals of Distress,” a show whose story is borrowed but whose delights are its own. This is the art of adaptation.




Created and performed by members of the Flying Machine; adapted by Joshua Carlebach from the novel of the same name by Jim Crace; directed by Mr. Carlebach; lighting by Josh Bradford and Raquel Davis; set by Marisa Frantz; costumes by Theresa Squire; sound by Bill Ware; production stage manager, Sloan Edenfield; stage manager, Courtni Wisenbaker. Presented by SoHo Rep, 46 Walker Street, TriBeCa.


WITH: Richard Crawford, Matthew Gray, Jessica Green, Jason Lindner, Kathryn Philip, Gregory Steinbruner, Tami Stronach and Kevin Varner.


© The New York Times 2002