BLOOMINGTON - It's not spoiling any surprises to tell you, right off the bat, that the three likable heroines of "Failure: A Love Story" are gonna die, one right after the other.
Within the same year, in fact: 1928.
"Through the first line of the show, you learn exactly what will happen," notes the director, Andrew Park, of his Illinois Shakespeare Festival production debuting this weekend.
That first line: "Nellie was the first of the Fail sisters to die ... followed soon after by Jenny, June and Gertie."
Sound depressing for days?
It isn't, assures both Park and the play's author, Philip Dawkins, whose heart and soul clearly has gone into its creation.
Nor is it spoiling anything to tell you that, before the evening is out, the untimely passing of the sisters Fail will be accompanied and/or supplemented by a cast of non-human characters, performed by puppets, from a sibilant river snake to an evocative owl packing a 16-foot wingspan.
There are around 30 to 40 of them, estimates Park, whose day job is as artistic director of Chicago's acclaimed Quest Theatre Ensemble, where puppets famously retain the upper hand.
Funny about those puppets: They're not in the script by the Chicago-based Dawkins, which is being given one of its earliest productions as this year's "non-Shakespeare" Illinois Shakespeare Festival offering.
"I'm very interested in letting differing theater companies leave their fingerprints all over it," says Dawkins. "I don't dictate how to tell a story, who says what line or how many actors are used."
In short, "I don't solve the challenge for the productions."
When "Failure: A Love Story" was given its world premiere at Chicago's Victory Gardens Theatre late last year, the cast was comprised of seven actors playing multiple roles, with ne'er a puppet to be seen.
Yes, there's clearly stated anthropomorphism in Dawkins' script, to be sure.
But there are no hard rules on how to convey it.
In Chicago, "one of the actors playing a dog just put on a Red Baron flyer cap (a la Peanuts' Snoopy) and became a dog."
Then along came the second staging in Philadelphia.
"In that production, the actor used a sports coat, and what he did with it when the dog dies" - yes, even dogs bite the big one in "Failure" - "it was so heartbreaking."
With the Illinois Shakespeare Festival rendering - only the show's third staging to date - director Park decided to go big with a big cast of 30 actors and as many puppets (see accompanying story on their creation with community involvement).
Dawkins is thrilled by his vision.
"I saw a run-through a couple weeks ago, and I thought it was incredibly sophisticated and ready to go then ... Andy is so on top of his game that I feel like this play is in incredibly capable hands."
The success of "Failure," noted a Chicago reviewer, is that it's "a wholly wonderful show that is profound, yet at the same time very whimsical beyond all imagination ... in which time is of the essence, and in which love and death conjoin in the strangest yet most beautiful of waltzes."
As far as its berth on the Illinois Shakespeare Festival main stage goes, "Failure: A Love Story" conforms to first-year artistic director Kevin Rich's vision of "introducing a new play in the spirit of Shakespeare."
Of "Failure," he says, "we are incredibly excited."
Set during the 1920s and 1930s, the story follows the fortunes of the Fail family, beginning with immigrants Henry and Marietta Fail, who open a clock repair shop along the Chicago River.
They produce a trio of daughters of differing lively temperaments. When another child is stillborn, they take in a shy boy named John N who floats up on shore, Moses-style, in a basket.
He will grow up to be an animal doctor, thus setting the stage for some of the anthropomorphism.
Also part of the family's (mis)fortunes is a young self-made man named Mortimer, who will end up romancing each Fail sister in succession.
Death will never be far off - from the sisters' foretold demises to a plot turn involving the real-life 1915 Eastland passenger ship disaster that sank in the Chicago River, killing 844 passengers and crew.
"Kevin (Rich) helped illuminate things for me as to why he felt this play is in the spirit of Shakespeare'," says Dawkins. "There's a poeticism and lyricism of language. And there's the fable element, the mythic element that says something about why we are who we are."
If there can be three mystical witches holding sway on the festival stage in "Macbeth," then why not the talking snakes, dogs and owls of "Failure"?
"The fantasy elements help make something real, in a fable-like way that we can approach," says Dawkins.
"Shakespeare was good at making people think about the big questions, and this play's topic addresses what we live our lives not wanting to think about ... that sooner or later every person we know is going to bite the big one," adds Park.
"Philip does a brilliant job of taking this idea and turning it into a poetic and gentle and extremely witty and very wise play in which we're constantly being brought back to this underlying hope that even though we lose people around us, they never really leave us, because we have them in our stories and memories."
At a glance
What: "Failure: A Love Story," by Philip Dawkins
When: 7:30 p.m. tonight (preview) and Sunday (opening night), and July 25 and 28, and Aug. 7; 8 p.m. July 19, and Aug. 2 and 10; 1:30 p.m. July 21 and 27
Where: Illinois Shakespeare Festival at Ewing Manor, Bloomington (matinees in ISU Center for the Performing Arts) Tickets: $27 to $47
Box office: 309-438-2535
Also Opening nights for the other two main-stage productions are also this weekend, with "The Comedy of Errors" at 8 p.m. Friday and "Macbeth" at 8 p.m. Saturday.
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