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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Double Feature at Hollywood and Vine

Or: Some are born for stardom, some achieve stardom, and some have stardom thrust upon ‘em

More than any other era of film (of the admittedly few era’s there have been), none inspire more fondness than the great sweeping motion pictures of the 1930’s. The depression was still shaking and the war was just around the corner, but in the back lots of Los Angeles people came together to create brilliant song and dance pieces celebrating life, romance and the gumption to overcome any obstacle. How appropriate then in these uncertain days that Northwestern’s community has pressed the mold of those heroic times on the rubbery foundation of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night to create the fun but not unserious story of Double Feature.

Alone in the world and facing a future of starvation twins Violet (Betsey Stewart) and Sebastian (Kyle Sherman) Sterling try to hop a train headed towards California. While Violet safely manages aboard she watches as her beloved twin is beaten and left for dead by the railway bulls. Reeling from her second orphaning and running from the law, she is taken under the wing of a optimistic barista Jack (Zach Piser) and Edith (Desiree Staples) a big hearted costume designer. They put her in boys clothes and place her on the set of the newest Majestic picture where she can earn her lunch and keep a low profile as a boy. Nothing can possibly come of that, right? Wrong! Almost immediately “Sebastian“ is embroiled the studio politics of Orson the demi-suave director (Zachary Freir-Harrison), Darla the starlet-child impersonator (Eliza Palasz) and a Melvin the greasy leading man (Ryan Bersten) along with a host of other characters who all seem to be in love with the wrong person (or besotted with themselves) and want her(m) to fulfill their far flung desires. “How will this Fadge?” Not well, Viola, not well.

Like those old shoestring epics, perpetually “over budget over time”, Double Feature gets by because its individuals components are so well interlocked. Set and lighting designers Scott Davis and Lee Fiskness, fill the unusually unfettered Cahn Theater with suggestive cues and structures which lend themselves to the malleability of both story and studio. The hoofers know how to hoof, show off their art well, and are choreographed to be both eye-catching and unobtrusive. And the original songs are well composed (save for when they, for authenticities sake, are wonderfully wince worthy). Some of the best include “I Don’t Know What to Say” (by Myrna Conn and Laura Winters), a lyrical, semi-scat duet between Orson and Violet and “You Think You Know a Guy” (by Alana Grossman, Amelia Bell, Austin Busch, Ryan Garson and Ryan Martin) the darkest moment of the show as the kindly Orson thoughts turn “ripe for mischief”.

The actors two know their places and bend each of their skills to make a tasty stew indeed. Stewart has a fine voice and a cheeky streak a mile wide, but her triumph is in walking the fence between lovesick and lonely cross dresser and sharp witted heroine and not falling off into either yard as so many Viola’s do. For her part, Palasz’s own impressive peregrine of a voice (she can sustain a note longer than you would think possible, or even healthy) and comfortability with being flipped backwards and forwards and sideways by all manner of extras, contrast nicely with her simmering rage at being a sultry starlet trapped in a pre-teens body. But despite the great talents of the principals it is the incidentals who win the production: Piser’s smooth movements as he oils his way around, trying to dance up a little cheerfulness from his new starving-orphaned-de-twined friend, Producer RB Buxley’s (Garret Baer) brusque and club-like witticisms, casting director Pat Patterson’s (Laura Winter) machiavellian machinations to keep the talent playacted and happy, and Bersten’s humorously under pitched and delightful villainies. Even the ensemble has some moments of stirling character: the obligatory dance off /mating ritual between two rival choreographers (Josh Kohane and Alyssa Sarnoff) is the best I’ve seen in years.

It’s true the plot is a bit squish squashed at times and the action can dissolve into confusion, but when confronted with a heaping plateful of hard work and well honed skill what does it matter if some slops over the sides? Double Feature, showcases a bunch of smart kids who teach our lips to smile and our ears to prick up. Like those silver linings of the Worst Hard Time, Double Feature shows us smart artists and artificers making their place in the world and inviting us to forget our cares for an hour or two.

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