Planet Ant’s “Failure: A Love Story” spins tuneful, timeless magic
HAMTRAMCK, Mich. – Leave it to Planet Ant to find a magical, tuneful comedy that begins with the pronouncement of certain death: three sisters – Nelly, Jenny June and Gerty Fail – will all perish, in reverse birth order, in the year 1928. Failure: A Love Story, by Chicago playwright Philip Dawkins, is a timeless fable in which time itself is an omnipresent character. And though the story is pure fantasy, it skips – like a smooth stone flung over Lake Michigan – to touch ever so briefly on actual moments in Chicago history.
The cast is amazing. Each of the eight actors plays multiple roles and tag-teams the narration of this inventive story. The pacing, as you might expect from a story set in a clock repair shop, is decidedly up-tempo.
Between 1900 and the events of The Great War, the immigrant Mr. and Mrs. Fail establish the Fail Clock Works shop at the corner of Lumber and Love on the banks of the Chicago River. They give birth to three vigorous daughters, lose a fourth baby girl, and find an orphan boy, whom they name John N. The boy, who is better with animals than people, embellishes the household with an odd assortment of pets, including a python that helps manage the rat population in the river-side home.
The most popular new song of 1910 is “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” This tune is played almost continuously on the Fail family’s phonograph, accompanied by the countless clocks that embrace the family with their own reassuring staccato hymn.
In 1915, Mr. and Mrs. Fail buy a new Stutz Bearcat, in which they are driving along the Chicago River when the excursion steamer Eastland capsizes at its dock, claiming the lives 848 people. In the kerfuffle, the Bearcat is nudged off the road and Mr. and Mrs. Fail become the first of their family to pass on into the dark waters of the Chicago River.
Loyal, hard-working Gerty (Sarah Hawkins Moan) takes on shop duties. Athletic Jenny June (Alexis Barrera) minds the little ones, falls for a teenaged Johnny Weissmuller, and becomes obsessed with competitive lake swimming. Angelic Nelly (Taylor Morrow) loves singing, dancing, and the imagined husband who will read the Bible aloud and the newspaper silently. Troubled John N. (Jonathan Davidson) learns from the family dog that, “just because something ends doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great success.” And when a charming young man in a natty suit steps into the shop – Mortimer Mortimer (Jason Bowen) – the Fail’s lives are forever changed. Sean Paraventi is stalwart as Mr. Fail but more loveable as the Grandfather Clock and Noah the python. Kate Foster is the nurturing Mrs. Fail as well as various other characters – human and otherwise. Sweet-voiced Kryssy Becker, who portrays the anthropomorphic phonograph player, provides lovely period music and fills out other cast requirements.
Failure: A Love Story is directed by Jill Dion and Molly McMahon, and they have lovingly constructed a sparkling production that is as hard to describe as a firework display. It’s a sensory experience. And the prose of the narration has its own quirky literary merit – as if novelists John Irving and Neil Gaiman decided to collaborate on a 1920’s musical.
There is choreography, mime and gymnastic movement as babies are born, animals are released, clocks are hurled and loved ones pass on into the next life. There are original tunes composed by Philip Dawkins, including a hilarious ensemble number in which Mortimer (Bowen) schemes the overthrow of Johnny Weissmuller.
The turn-of-the-century costumes by Christina Tomlinson and the scenic/prop design by Jennifer Maiseloff (including a thematic clock mural that fills the upstage wall) intermingle to create a rich, magical space in which animals talk, clocks are sentient, and love changes form but proves timeless. The show, which runs without intermission, is lit by Neil Koivu and Stage Managed by Patrick Hanley. The company is to be congratulated on squeezing so much amazement into such a confined space and duration.
For all its inherent tragedy, Failure: A Love Story is a triumphant comedy that cannot fail to please. Our personal clocks may wind down, but the love we share with each other, like the ubiquitous water that surrounds this play, is boundless.