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‘Failure: A Love Story’ draws on strong story line, fine performances for success

Emjoy Gavino Guy Massey Michael Salinas star 'Failure: A Love Story' Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre Studio.

Emjoy Gavino, Guy Massey and Michael Salinas star in "Failure: A Love Story" at Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre Studio.

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When: Through Dec. 30 Where:

Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre Studio, 2433 N. Lincoln

Tickets: $35-$50

Info: (773) 871-3000;

Updated: December 30, 2012 6:16AM

And now for something completely different — Philip Dawkins’ enchanted and enchanting “Failure: A Love Story.”

Here, in its exquisitely imagined world premiere in the Victory Gardens Theatre Studio is a wholly wonderful show that is profound, yet at the very same time whimsical beyond all imagining — a show in which time is of the essence, and in which love and death (especially death that comes suddenly and prematurely) conjoin in the strangest yet most beautiful of waltzes.

Clocks might set the essential rhythm in Dawkins’ story, yet his characters seem to be moving to the beat of their own decidedly eccentric drummer. And while a madly multitalented ensemble of seven actors plays a beguiling assortment of humans, they also can just as easily morph into dogs or snakes or, with the aid of a couple of fuzzy green hats, a pair of exotic birds.

Best of all, here is a story spun out against the watery backdrop of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan — a tale that at times takes on the qualities of magic realism, yet ultimately brings us back to the real world, where the true mysteries of existence reside.

Dawkins (whose excellent previous play, “The Homosexuals,” could not be more different in style or content), also has created a work that requires the input of a brilliant director, and in Seth Bockley (a Redmoon veteran) he has found someone who can truly make his story dance. Bockley’s sleight-of-hand is apparent in every synchronous movement and vocal harmony of the performers, and in every ingeniously choreographed realignment of time and space. Bravo.

Dawkins’ story homes in on two generations of the Fail family. Mom and Dad are Old World immigrants (played by Janet Ulrich Brooks, who also morphs into the most hilarious river snake in existence, and Guy Massey, who doubles as top deputy dog). The two made it across the ocean, and ultimately settled in an old Chicago warehouse where, beginning in the late 1920s, they lived above their successful clock shop business.

The Fails become parents to three distinctive daughters: Gertrude (snappy Mildred Marie Langford), an independent spirit who eventually oversees the business; Jenny June (the galvanically talented Emjoy Gavino), a daring girl who will become a competitive lake swimmer; and Nelly (beguiling Baize Buzan), the youngest, a flirty beauty with show biz dreams. After the birth of a stillborn baby, an introverted boy, John N (Michael Salinas, ideally withdrawn and watchful), floats up on shore in a basket and is taken in as the girls’ brother. He will grow up to run an animal hospital.

The unlikely catalyst in Dawkins’ story arrives in the form of Mortimer (Matt Fletcher, both guileless and confident). A dashing young self-made man on a quest for a wife, he proceeds to fall in love with, and quickly lose, all three Fail sisters, as each of the young women dies in rapid succession. Mortimer’s heartbreak, and his unexpected lessons in “moving on” in the wake of grief, turn out to be an essential element in Dawkins’ surprisingly steely soap bubble of a play.

In the wrong hands, all this might just tip towards the precious. But this is a flawless production, with an ensemble (all of whom sing, and many of whom play instruments) so meticulously tuned to the story, and to each other, that they easily spin Dawkins’ play into gold.

Scott Davis’ handsome warehouse set (with only a table, chest of drawers, ladder and chairs as building blocks) fully embraces the space. Emily Tarleton’s costumes are vintage gems in this timeless dream of a show that could not be more of a success.

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