Tuesday, July 16, 2013

FAILURE: A LOVE STORY Is Something Special at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

I can't speak for other theater critics or reviewers, but I can say this about myself: Every time I take my seat before a performance, I hope it will be something special. Isn't that what theatre is all about? Isn't that why we go? I hope this show, this performance, will be special enough to transport me into the world of the play, introduce me to fascinating new characters, take me somewhere I haven't been before, broaden my horizons, spin me around and back again...

And last Sunday night at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival's production of Philip Dawkins' Failure: A Love Story, that's exactly what happened.

This production, directed by Andrew Park, artistic director of Chicago's Quest Theatre Ensemble, is full of puppets, credited to Puppet Designer/Fabricator Luke Verkamp. Because they are front and center in Park's interpretation of the piece, because they feature prominently in the show's advertising, you may think that the magic of Failure: A Love Story comes from the puppets. And that is absolutely not the case.

Amanda Catania appears in Failure: A Love Story
Yes, some of them are very fetching (the dog, the snake, the parrots). Yes, some are kind of creepy (the children, like the one seen in the photo above). But I realized, about halfway through, that I had stopped noticing the puppets. I was smitten with the story, with the characters, with Dawkins' eccentric, touching, incredibly human vision of how we move through life and how we spend our time together before we get to the end. Remember that bit about the end. At least twice, Dawkins' characters remind us, "Just because something ends, that don't mean it wasn't a great success." As theatregoers, we're used to that. You can put a movie back in the DVD player and crank it up again, but theatre... Well, whether it was a great success or not, it's over when it's over, living on only in your memory. And that's very much like the beautiful Fail sisters, whose stories end before they should.

As it happens, the recurring themes in Failure are about endings and about time. The Fail parents, Henry and Marietta, run a clock shop. They sell every kind of clock and tell every kind of time. They also have a strange run-in with Fate in the shape of the Eastland Riverboat Disaster of 1915, falling straight into their own mortal end, and then it's up to their daughters, Gertude, Jenny June and Nelly, and their adopted son, John N., to run the Fail Clock Works as Chicago moves into the 1920s. Especially Gertrude, who is practical and no-nonsense and knows her way around a clock. Jenny June is more interested in swimming across Lake Michigan, while Nelly is simply brimming over with laughter and joy and life, a girl whose first word was "Yes" and her second, "Hooray!" John N. is more of an odd bird. Or fish, since he was pulled from the Chicago River one day by Jenny June. He likes animals, but doesn't do so well with people, and he dreams of being a veterinarian.

And that's the Fail family, completed by a series of pets adopted by John N. and a whole lot of clocks. In the Illinois Shakespeare Festival production, we see the Grandfather Clock, the Cuckoo Clock, the Swiss Clock, and more, all personified by actors wearing clock headgear. We also see John N.'s snake, birds, dog, cat and a passel of rodents, again personified by actors and puppets.

Into that menagerie and Clock Works walks one Mortimer Mortimer, who falls in love with Nelly within a moment or two. But none of the Fail sisters is long for this world, and the play and its narrator tell the tale of how their minutes tick away, filled with songs and dances, jokes and tragedies, love and loss, and poignant reflections on what life amounts to, in the end. "Just because something ends, that don't mean it wasn't a great success."

There are a series of lovely performances at the heart of this version of the play, with all three sisters -- Eva Balistrieri as Nelly, Amanda Catania as Jenny June and Nisi Sturgis as Gertude -- especially vibrant and charming. Jordan Coughtry is handsome, flashy and fizzy as their collective suitor, the swain Mortimer Mortimer, and Cody Proctor builds a compelling, appealing character around sad, sweet John N. They all have to jump into the play's quirky rhythms and make it work, and they do that very, very well.

Thomas Anthony Quinn does fine work from beginning to end as the Chorus, the narrator who lays the whole story out for us and works his way into our hearts, David Hathway is practically a one-man band as the musical personification of the Gramophone, and Andrew Voss does a great job with an emotionally jarring scene about a dog.

I also enjoyed Lauren Lowell's enchanting costumes, Fred M. Duer's up-and-down set design, and Sarah EC Maines' lighting design, especially when we got to the birds.

Honestly, I loved this show. I can't speak for you, but for me, Dawkins' script, the bright, bouncy performances, imaginative staging and sense of whimsy were absolutely perfect.

I will say that the dog scene and the scariness of some of the puppets, as well as the omnipresence of death around every corner, lead me to believe that the Festival is doing the show a disservice by marketing it to children. Just a thought for parents -- no matter how it's marketed, even if it is full of puppets, I really don't think it's a children's show.

By Philip Dawkins

Illinois Shakespeare Festival
The Theatre at Ewing

Director: Andrew Park
Costume Designer: Lauren M. Lowell
Scenic Designer: Fred M. Duer
Lighting Designer: Sarah EC Maines
Sound Designer/Composer: Shannon O'Neill
Puppet Designer/Fabricator: Luke Verkamp
Stage Manager: Adam Fox
Vocal Coach: Krista Scott

Cast: Thomas Anthony Quinn, Eva Balistrieri, Amanda Catania, Nisi Sturgis, David Hathway, Kraig Kelsey, Wendy Robie, Kelsey Bunner, Allison Sokolowski, Joe Faifer, David Fisch, Preston "Wigasi" Brant, Drew Mills, Carlos Kmet, Neal Moeller, Cydney D. Moody, Lindsay Smiling, Michele Stine, Andrew Voss, Martin Hanna, Arif Yampolsky, Fiona Stephens, Cody Proctor, Jordan Coughtry.

Running time: 2:20, including one 15-minute intermission.

Remaining performances: July 17, 19, 21, 25, 27, 28 and 31; August 2, 7 and 10.

For ticket information, click here

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