The Flying Cloud is the story of the ship of that name and the people on it as it sails from New York to San Francisco - a three-month journey in the days before the Panama Canal. It is narrated by one passenger, traveling with her mother, by way of writing in a journal addressed to the husband with whom she is eager to be reunited. Out of this rather dry premise, Julia Ryan, the creator and solo performer, and Francesca Mantani Arkus, collaborator and director, weave together many interesting strands, some of them quite golden.
The set (by Yong-Seok Choi), consisting of sails strung across the stage and some rigging ropes, was simple yet tremendously effective and set the scene beautifully. The largest sail also served as a screen for slides illustrating the voice-over narration of the journal, which is based on the writings of a real passenger of the time. As other passengers were described and their images projected, Ryan was transformed from a mere narrator and became them in flesh. And what a diverse group they were: Mrs. Shelley and her on-the-verge-of-adolescence daughter Pearl; Mr. Wadsworth, a southern gentleman; Mademoiselle, a Frenchwoman traveling (quel scandale!) only with her maid; Mrs. Creasey, who works on the ship. Each character was sharply drawn, and each one was fascinating in Ryan's portrayal.
Pearl is a rambunctious child who would love to be a sailor, but her mother, wrapped up in her own concerns, is more concerned with her daughter's incipient menstruation. Pearl, not quite ready to face the reality of "becoming a woman," takes refuge in acting out her fantasy stories of life on the high seas. Mr. Wadsworth, a pompous chauvinist, was evoked by the use of fake legs, dressed in trousers, which Ryan manipulated in front of her. The appendages were complete with pockets for her hands, camouflaging the manipulation. Their design was uncredited, but they were a fine and funny solution to the problem of a woman in skirts portraying a man. Mademoiselle relates the story of how she was sent to a convent as a child - she was pregnant, but the baby was stillborn. Mrs. Creasey married a sailor and went with him to sea many years ago, and couldn't bear to leave even after his death. Ryan was excellent as all of them.
She was so good, in fact, that when she merely described, as the narrator, her mother's realization that she was too old to even consider the return trip to Boston, a lump surely arose in viewers' throats. As she waved to someone on another ship, her joy was palpable.
While there was no suspense about the outcome, when the ship encountered rough weather as it rounded Cape Horn Ryan clearly presented each character's hopes, fears, and seasickness.
The play suffers from a rather abrupt condensation after rounding
the Cape - surely that's only the geographic halfway point of
the trip. The piece itself was short at about 50 minutes, and
an expansion, including more of the ship and her passengers, would
be most welcome.
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Copyright 1999 David Mackler