Northern Kentucky University’s Y.E.S Festival is showcasing three new and very different plays through April 17: Karla Jennings’ Monstrous Beauty; Jacqueline T. Lynch’s One Good Turn; and Kelly Kingston Strayer’s Marfa, Texas. Jennings’ play spans decades and the world with stops in Hitler’s Berlin, the glamorous Marlene Dietrich’s boudoir, Andy Warhol parties, dive bars and even prison cells meant for war criminals. You can guess where Marfa, Texas takes place. One Good Turn plays out in your basic dorm room on an unidentified college campus. Pink sheets on matching beds, textbooks and picture frames — except for the dangerous-looking rope ladder dangling outside a window, it looks like a place I once lived.
The most watchable and entertaining of this year’s line up is Marfa, Texas, a borderline farce with Stetson. Marfa has one legendary claim to fame: Once upon a time, Elizabeth Taylor made a movie there. The town’s only hotel is likely to close unless the lovable but ne’er-do-well owner can come up with a lot of back mortgage payments. A true ensemble, the show’s excellent cast make the jokes land, the banter lively and the show very tight. Marfa’s soundtrack — an assortment of Country tunes by Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash — energizes even the scene changes.
Jennings’ Monstrous Beauty has a fascinating core: the life of Leni Riefenstahl, a filmmaker for Hitler and the Third Reich. Her most famous work, Triumph of the Will is a remarkable film that makes plain her talent. Though beautiful, the film is primarily a work of Nazi propaganda. The play explores Riefenstahl’s life, her relationship with actress Marlene Dietrich, who left Germany for Hollywood and refused to return and questions surrounding how much Riefenstahl knew of the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the war. She maintained she knew nothing, a fact that’s hard to believe.
The Y.E.S. production is highly theatrical and well-done, but at two-and-a-half hours with countless stops around the globe, the play feels overwritten. The young cast rose as best it could to the daunting task of playing people like Dietrich and Joseph Goebbels at various stages in their lives, but performances lacked nuance and clarity. I had the sense I was watching people trying to lift boxes that were too heavy or moving about the stage in the clothes that were too big. Brooke Rucidlo’s performance as Riefenstahl was a true feat of endurance, as the production rested on her shoulders. She possessed the physical strength to send her feelings to the back of good-sized house and the stamina to stay very focused and committed to the character she brought to life. The role is a size large for her now, but she could grow into it.
One Good Turn is festival’s weak link. Instead of delivering the typical college commencement address, a valedictorian tells all of her fellow classmates that, as a young child, she lived on the streets. She once witnessed a crime and rescued the victim who went on to become her benefactor. The play is supposed to work like a crime novel, but it doesn’t deliver. FBI agents, journalists, college students, a woman who faked her own death and mobsters are all in and out of so many windows and doors that the tale has a comedic feel. Mixed with hokey dialogue and far-fetched relationships, all the hubbub makes it hard to get a grip on what the stakes are and what kind of play this is. A thriller? An after-school special with a romance? Some combo? Though well-cast, the show was poorly staged. Actors seemed to not know where they belonged or were uncomfortable in the space.
To its credit, the Northern Kentucky University’s Y.E.S. Festival covers a lot of different ground. A new script is an exciting thing to see, and the young actors all bring a refreshing earnestness to their work that is engaging in itself. You can only take so many journeys in an afternoon, day or even a week; Y.E.S. has some thrilling possibilities.
Northern Kentucky University’s 15th biennial YEAR-END SERIES (aka the “Y.E.S. Festival”) continues through April 17. Productions are offered in rotating repertory. For details, go here.