Los Angeles Theater Review: FAILURE: A LOVE STORY (Coeurage Theatre Company at GTC in Burbank)

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by Jason Rohrer on July 24, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles


You have had at least one dream in which the universe of potential joy is realized in a moment. The moment is ethereal and tangible, in the way of dreams. For me this dream is always of a kiss. In the dream I am young and the girl I am going to kiss is known and unknown and the whole possible weight of bliss is in her mouth and I know I am going to kiss her and I do kiss her and at that point the dream is over because, having realized my ecstasy, I am now bereft. The god of my unconscious has given me to mourn my epic loss, mindful now of the existential imperative: to live life as if it’s soon to end. Because guess what.

Margaret Katch & Kurt Quinn in Coeurage Theatre Company's FAILURE - A LOVE STORY. Photo byIn my entertainments I seek this same subconscious motivation to take the world into my mouth, to take pleasure from it and from the pleasure it takes in me. I am an overly complicated mammal, incompletely capable of self-preservation. I need other humans to tell me the messages that I am bored of telling myself. I cannot surprise myself into wakefulness, mindfulness, renewal. We seek each other for this purpose. If we don’t, we die – sooner or later, and certainly alone.

So a play that makes plain the fleeting glory, the absurd transience called life, that makes me shout and cry and forget mortality while explaining the centrality of death in life – this is a great boon to man. It is a thing tragically, heroically important to our species. Surely such a show is more important than to be presented as a “pay what you want” affair. This show should cost at minimum all the money that we can reasonably afford and steal. Such a show reflects to us our prime ambitions on this or any plane. Our nightmares transcended and returned, improved, of actual practical use, now to drive us on with strength and faith restored: What price is this not worth?

Nicole Shalhoub, Cristina Gerla, Gina Torrecilla, Neil Taffe, Margaret Katch, Kristina Johnson. Photo by John Klopping.The initial sacrifice, at least, is clear. We must first appear at the temple. All other obeisance is secondary. Philip Dawkins’ play-with-music Failure: A Love Story plays through August 29 in Burbank. Go.

The story of three sisters and the man who loves and loses them all in 1928, Failure is a reverie on death, wholly alive. All three sisters die, the manner, order, and time of their deaths foretold. Their name is Fail; their lover’s name is French for “dead sea” – and their parents have already drowned. After we watch the parents die, we know the sisters are going to drop one by one, and then the subsidiary characters; before the show is over even the animated inanimate objects are dead. You too.

Kidding! Not you. You’ll likely feel livelier than you can remember, outside a kiss-dream.

Nicole Shalhoub, Margaret Katch in Coeurage Theatre Company's FAILURE - A LOVE STORY. Photo by John Klopping.Dawkins’ 2012 script has been accused of having problems that I imagine belong less to the text than to productions unlucky enough not to have been directed by Michael Matthews. In gorgeous story-theater gestures, given human scale by the genius of arranger and composer Gregory Nabours and uplifted by Janet Roston’s show-stopping choreography, Matthews’ shockingly well-cast ensemble gets everything more than right. People play piano and pretend to be clocks; they play the banjo, and birds; they sing, and slither as snakes. On JR Bruce’s fantastical set, under the unreal magic of Matthew Denman’s lights, playing with Michael O’Hara’s mad props, they act the roof off. They make you want to fall out of love so you can fall back in again in the full and constant knowledge that it can’t last forever, that every game’s a loser in the end, and that knowing that much counts as a win. What might seem like campy, cutesy bad taste instead, in this dead-eye production, hits the soul as eternal truth.

Nicole Shalhoub (flying) and the Company in Coeurage Theatre Company's FAILURE - A LOVE STORY. Photo byAs dim a dreamer as I will sometimes take his entertainments over-seriously. I wish to punish those who lead me on with false promises of nirvana. And so I looked, in this production, for a failure – just as, in a dream, you’ll sometimes tell yourself you must be dreaming and so ruin a perfectly good turtle-crayon airplane tunnel narrative. It’s not that I don’t want every show to work, and give me my bliss: Rather, I must prove to my satisfaction that it’s really as good as it should be, so that I don’t lie to myself and damage the measurements by which I conduct my affairs. If I start thinking a sandy apple’s as good as a crisp nectarine, pretty soon I’ll think it’s okay to settle for less than makes me happy; and I’ll buy a shitty car, marry the wrong woman, and drive both of us off a cliff.

Kurt Quinn & June Carryl in Coeurage Theatre Company's FAILURE - A LOVE STORY. Photo by John Klopping.So don’t think I didn’t look for a weak link in this cast. I scoured those chains. They could hold ten thousand times their own weight. They did for me tonight what maybe one cast every couple of years does: not let me down in the least. There are thirteen of them, and I’ve wasted a messy essay on esoterica until it’s 4 a.m. and I haven’t time before I pass out to name and praise each deserving member of this somehow-even-better-than-usual Coeurage Theatre ensemble. It will have to be enough to say that I will be kissing each of them in my sleep tonight – the girls, I confess, maybe more than once.

Joseph V. Calarco, Kurt Quinn in Coeurage Theatre Company's FAILURE - A LOVE STORY. Photo by John Klopping.The principals must be told: June Carryl, Nicole Shalhoub and Margaret Katch play the Fail sisters without flub or flaw. Carryl’s gravity, Shalhoub’s exuberance, Katch’s effervescence danced me all the way home. As their suitor Mortimer, the glasscutter-sharp Kurt Quinn maintains his title as Man I Most Like to See in a Leading Role, a streak he started in The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide, which happens to have been directed by the other lead in this show, Joe Calarco, who plays the Fail sisters’ lovably creepy brother so well that I’ll be kissing him twice tonight too. These five alone would be worth any night terror if they could welcome you to wakefulness on the other side. Married to the other eight actors on the GTC stage, they are such stuff as only the best dreams are made on.

Denver Milord, Nicole Shalhoub, & Brandon Ruiter in Coeurage Theatre Company's FAILURE - A LOVE STORY. Photo by John Klopping.photos by John Klopping

Failure: A Love Story
Coeurage Theatre Company
Grove Theatre Center
1100 W. Clark Ave. in Burbank
Thurs-Sat at 8 (some exceptions)
ends on August 29, 2015
for ‘Pay What You Want’ reservations,
call 323-944-2165 or visit Coeurage

reopens at the Kirk Douglas Theatre
presented by Center Theatre Group
April 14-23, 2017
for tickets, visit CTG


Joyce Busch July 25, 2015 at 1:58 pm

I am so proud to say that Matthew Denman is my grandson and he has been talented from the day he was born. This is his love and I am so happy because he is so good at it. He will disown me for writing about him and he might change what he wrote for my eulogy. Break a leg Matt; I am so proud of you and wish I was there to see the play.


Jason Rohrer July 25, 2015 at 2:51 pm

Ms Busch, nobody is sorry you wrote, I’ll bet your grandson least of all. I find it lovely that Coeurage is a company that seems to inspire relatives to comment here – last time I recall it was Mr Calarco’s dad. Now I’m going to cry but it’s only because I still haven’t slept.

Jo Busch July 25, 2017 at 6:54 pm

Thank you Jason for the nice comments. I have always been very proud of Matt (Mathew Denman).

Tony Frankel July 25, 2015 at 10:52 pm

Having just returned from Failure: A Love Story, I can corroborate Mr. Rohrer’s enthusiasm. There is something else going on here besides splendid stagecraft; as with last year’s The Yellow Boat, this company is dripping with love–especially the love of storytelling. It is also Gregory Nabours’ best work to date–his musical genius elevates this production above the two others that I have seen.

Jason Rohrer August 3, 2015 at 2:20 am

I really didn’t say enough about Gregory Nabours. It’s unreal what he’s done with the music to bring tone and spirit, and his performance as the dying dog is outrageously beautiful, true in a deep human sense. He’s entirely too handsome to have all this talent.

k.m.e. July 26, 2015 at 8:25 am

I have seen productions and staged readings of this piece around the country. So gratifying to read of this fabulous performance of, still, one of my personal favorites from the pen of one of America’s most imaginative and insightful playwrights. Thank you — again — Philip Dawkins.
Bravo — everyone.
L.A. — Go See This.

Wendy Pini August 8, 2015 at 9:36 am

Yes, it is LOVE that drives this show. But it’s the flawless direction and choreography, the astonishing invention that makes you see every bit of non-existent scenery and objects mentioned, and it is the music that weaves a constant spell propelling you back and forth in time. This show is a many-faceted GEM, whimsical and yet deeply moving. The cast members give their all, but effortlessly, because they’re all THAT good. See this show. You’ll never forget it.

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