Review: ‘Failure: A Love Story’ at Marin Theatre Company (****)

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ****)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(“Failure: A Love Story” plays at Marin Theatre Company through June 29, 2014.)

This is playwright Philip Dawkins’ season in San Francisco. Well appreciated in Chicago, his first west coast exposure came in May with “The Homosexuals” at New Conservatory Theatre Center and now we have “Failure: A Love Story” at Marin Theatre Company.

Welcome, Mr. Dawkins, to Baghdad-By-The-Bay! We are delighted to make your acquaintance.

The Fail family has a clock shop, which is the inspiration for a charmingly stylized comic set by Nina Ball. At the start of the play, the story and the family seem to be peculiarly and disturbingly clock like: the language, the movement, the music and the setting all strangely mechanical, a bit overwrought. The effect is charming, but odd. The oddness is compounded when, at the start of the play, we learn what is to come: the Fail parents and all of the Fail sisters die young, tragically, and a bit absurdly.

(l to r) Liz Sklar as  Jenny June Failure , Megan Smith as Gertrude Failure, and Kathryn Zdan as Nelly Failure. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.
The Fail Sisters, Nelly (Kathryn Zdan), Jenny June (Liz Sklar), and Gertrude (Megan Smith). Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

The sisters are loved in succession by an ardent young man with the ridiculously appropriate name of “Mortimer Mortimer”. It’s fun to watch at first, almost too fun, given the seriousness of the theme of mortality and evident meaninglessness of a clockwork universe winding inevitably down for each of us.

Little by little, Dawkins’ springs his surprise. This clockwork machinery is animated by a depth of human feeling, a passion for life, a joyful celebration of love that asserts itself in spite of the clock. The clock is silly, but the people are not. In their passionate, well lived lives, they transform death into a powerless clown. They refuse to be mechanical clocks, winding inevitably down, but instead achieve miracles of individuality and eccentricity within the constraints of the clock shop (which is elegantly developed into a metaphor for life itself).

Jenny June Fail (Liz Sklar) trains to swim across Lake Michigan in her home with the help of Mortimer Mortimer (Brian Herndon). Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.
Jenny June Fail (Liz Sklar) trains to swim across Lake Michigan in her home with the help of Mortimer Mortimer (Brian Herndon). Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

The most wonderful thing about this play, to this reviewer, is that it seems to start off as something not quite right. Dawkins starts out in such an odd, unexpected fashion, as if to intentionally alienate the audience only to gradually win us back with a dramaturgical sleight-of-hand that is remarkably original.

The sad, haunting, touching, enchanting, elegant, silly, profound journey of this “Failure” makes for a wonderful time. More than most plays, Dawkins “Failure” (an ironic misnomer if I’ve ever heard one) is designed to be a collaborative piece with the director and cast. The evening’s program includes this astonishing “note on production” from the playwright:

“You want to have the Fails talking about themselves in third person? Awesome. You want the two dead parents to comprise the chorus? (Oh, they’re dead. Spoiler alert.) Go for it. You want a trio of hear-n0 / see-n0 / speak-no evil monkeys narrating the story? Rock on. The chorus is there to be tailored to your specific production. Make it as simple or complex as you see fit.”

Jenny June Fail (Liz Sklar) trains to swim across Lake Michigan in her home with the help of Mortimer Mortimer (Brian Herndon). Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.
Megan Smith, Patrick Kelly Jones and Brian Herndon in “Failure: A Love Story”. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

With directions like that from the playwright, we shouldn’t be surprised that the result is somewhat unusual. Yes, there are puppets, song-and-dance, original music, old popular songs (the audience is encouraged to sing along), everything but the kitchen sink (although I suspect it might be included in other productions, and probably tap dances). This thing is a lot of fun.

And yet, it is about death and loss and how we live with it, and how it is possible to love life under the most challenging circumstances, and how love can be unspeakably sad. It is a marriage of the absurd with the profound. It has elements of the theatre of the ridulous as well as the theatre of the absurd. It’s a damn good play.

The fine cast, who, incidentally, provide all of the musical accompaniment themselves, deliver enthusiastic characterizations along with ample clowning, acrobatics and puppetry.

The design team (Nina Ball, York Kennedy, Jacqueline Firkins, Seren Helday) have created an environment that is so striking it is practically an additional character.

This one is a whole lot of fun, with a whole lot of depth. You’ll enjoy it.

Find further information here.

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“Failure: A Love Story” by Philip Dawkins, west coast premire presented by Marin Theatre Company. Director: Jasson Minadakis. Composer, Music Director & Sound Designer: Chris Houston. Choreographer: Kathryn Zdan. Scenic Designer: Nina Ball. Lighting Designer: York Kennedy. Costume Designer: Jacqueline Firkins. Properties Artisan: Seren  Helday. 

Nelly Fail: Kathryn Zdan. Jenny June Fail: Liz Sklar. Gertrude Fail: Megan Pearl Smith. John N. Fail: Patrick Kelly Jones. Mortimer Mortimer: Brian Herndon.

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