Hit and a Miss: NKU's Y.E.S. Festival

Encore, Encore and It's a Grand Night for Murder (Review)

click to enlarge Victoria Hawley as Dorothy Parker in Encore, Encore at Y.E.S. Festival
Victoria Hawley as Dorothy Parker in Encore, Encore at Y.E.S. Festival

Northern Kentucky University’s 17th biennial Year End Series (Y.E.S.) Festival began last week and continues through April 26. According to NKU professor Sandra Forman, who oversees the project every two years, no other university in America undertakes a festival on this scale. It began in 1980 after several NKU theater professors attended an early iteration of the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville and decided to do something similar at NKU. Repeated every two years since, it requires 18 months of preparation to pull together three productions for 10 days of performance by students. 

This year the festival is staging Colin Speers Crowley’s Encore, Encore, about legendary wit and caustic critic Dorothy Parker; Joe Starzyk’s It’s a Grand Night for Murder, a murder mystery spoof; and David L. Williams’ The Divine Visitor, a Restoration comedy with a sci-fi overlay.

I caught Crowley’s excellent tragicomedy Encore, Encore on Monday evening. Parker was a founding member and initially the only woman in New York City’s legendary Algonquin Round Table, a group of renowned columnists, playwrights and satirists in the 1920s. The play traces her meteoric writing career and her turbulent personal life. We see her become established as the sharp-tongued drama critic for Vanity Fair, and we witness the deterioration of her marriage.

NKU senior Victoria Hawley played the central role in a production directed by veteran guest director Ed Cohen. Crowley’s play, which uses Parker as its narrator as well as its central character, digs deep, providing a portrait of a vulnerable woman who lived her life in the spotlight and never found real happiness. Hawley portrays her from her first confident days at Vanity Fair, through her friendships and relationships with New York’s literary elite. She was known as flippant and brittle, a source of quick-witted, often obscene remarks, and Hawley handles them well — while also conveying Parker’s frustration and vulnerability.

NKU junior Hunter Henrickson rises to the challenge of playing Parker’s husband Eddie. He went off to World War I in France almost immediately after their marriage, returning after two brutal years in the field nursing service, shell-shocked and seriously dependent. Her intervening success became a source of friction and embarrassment between them. Henrickson showed Eddie’s initial, inebriated charm and did a fine job of playing the broken man he became. The show’s other fine performance came from junior Connor Moulton as Parker’s brash writing friend Robert Benchley, a steady source of insouciant foolishness.

It’s a good thing Parker’s not around today to critique the other Y.E.S. production that I attended on Sunday evening, Starzyk’s It’s A Grand Night for Murder. Of a production in her era, Parker wrote, “This wasn’t just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it.” That could describe this ill-conceived script. 

Grand Night is intended as a satire of murder mysteries. A man hires a wannabe assassin to kill his wife and clear the path to his nubile mistress. Starzyk has used so many disparate elements and clichés in his script that its wheels fall off almost as quickly as the ill-conceived murder attempt. The second act is a particular mess of supposedly comic sex, death and dying. There’s occasional amusement from Starzyk’s stereotyped characters, but several descend into offensive humor. 

NKU senior Robert Macke as the bizarre hit man has funny moments, especially with rubbery physical comedy and verbal non-sequiturs. He’s the play’s most inventive character, but he’s killed off well before the conclusion. The husband and wife are conceived more naturalistically, so the odd comedy of other characters clashes with the understated husband, junior Rhys Boatwright, and his nasty wife, junior Emily Fry. She’s the ultimate villain, but with no foreshadowing, the play’s conclusion makes little sense. I’m not sure why this script was chosen for production by NKU. 

The third play in the festival is The Divine Visitor, styled as a 17th-century Restoration comedy of manners with a sci-fi twist. It’s about a cad who fakes his own death, then learns that every beautiful woman in town wept at his funeral. He sticks around to seduce several of them by appearing as his own ghost. When a visitor truly from beyond arrives, things get complicated. (Read my review of this show here.)


The YEAR-END SERIES (Y.E.S.) FESTIVAL, produced by Northern Kentucky University, continues through Sunday. More info here.


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