THE EMPIRE STRIPS BACK

By Brian Hurwitz
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People take art very seriously. Immaterial of the medium or the presentation, it is consistently subjected to an endless stream of dissection, analysis and critique. The implication being that the artist no doubt imbued his or her work with a meaning or thematic that must necessarily be exposed in order for it to be appreciated. But in the immortal words of Sigmund Freud, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And the burlesque parody ‘The Empire Strips Back ‘ is just such a cigar.

Historically, burlesque performances are intimate exchanges between dancers and their audience. It is a choreographed seduction that is as enticing as it is beguiling. In creating ‘The Empire Strips Back,’ Russell Beattie took that tradition and turned it on its ear.

With 20 years of experience producing shows that adhered to those conventions, he was ready to do something different. “We wanted to be a bit more confronting and just kind of break away what everyone expected from the aesthetic of what was popular at the time.”

The result was shows that explored darker themes absent stereotypical elements. “Burlesque, in its essence, is a circus without any animals,” he told me. “The same way the circus has that element of danger constantly surrounding it, that something could go wrong at any point, that’s what we strove to create as well because it creates an excitement among the audience.”

Not long after, he was compelled to take his art in a different direction once again. Specifically, he wanted to do something fun. His first thought was of Star Wars. A self-proclaimed fanatic of the original films, Russell knew few things were more universally beloved than the source material from which he drew his inspiration. Years of fine-tuning the show in his native Australia led to the streamlined spectacle that now plays before sold-out audiences all over the world. The show I recently saw at The Wiltern Theater was no different.

Regardless of whether or not you’re a fan of Star Wars, you know the characters. You’ve seen them in films and on TV, at Disneyland and shopping malls. In toy stores, supermarkets and cosplay events. But you’ve never seen them through Russell’s eyes.

“A long time ago in a parody far, far away…” So begins the satirical crawl that opened the engagement and recounted “dark and sexy times for the Rebellion.” The nearly two thousand people in attendance were then greeted by a Death Star Officer spewing vitriol about the “rebel scum” he had the displeasure of introducing. And he did not engage them as Angelenos, but as Wookies, Sandpeople and Hutts. In doing so, he transformed the audience from mere spectators to active participants.

That shift was precisely what Russell had intended. “When you move to a bigger venue, you don’t have that intimacy which creates that energy, so you have to replace the method of getting that energy.” To accomplish that, he sought to generate a super-immersive experience for the audience of pure escapism.

It wasn’t long before that imperious Officer began announcing one act after another. A female Luke Skywalker peeled off her clothes, single-handedly raising the frigid temperatures on Hoth and giving her Taun Taun a heart attack in the process. Miss Skywalker’s second turn saw her giving her land speeder a good washing and quite literally shedding her inhibitions with such measured grace that I’m confident she could’ve turned anyone away from the dark side.

Two Jawas gradually stripped C3PO of her gold plating, imbuing the android with an undeniable eroticism that would make George Lucas blush. And if you don’t think Stormtroopers can be sensual, you haven’t seen the six in this show dancing with a precision as flawless as their toned thighs. Not surprisingly, the Officer’s contempt for “Rebel Scum” dwindled with every performance.

Beyond the meticulous choreography, Russell attempted to create “a theater show with the energy of a rock show” by pairing each act with music that was as recognizable as the character performing it. Princess Leia’s sultry striptease for R2D2 was set to Christina Aguilera’s ‘Dirty’ and resulted in the pint-sized robot blowing a fuse and spewing cash. Han Solo broke free of his carbonite prison and fought off Greedo to dance with bounty hunter Leia to the tune of Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal.’ On top of all this, the routines were complimented by extraordinary costumes and impressive props.

Early incarnations of the show were staged using outfits Russell built from plumbing supplies and old toys. But those donned in the current format are nearly indistinguishable from ones seen in the films save, of course, for Russell’s unique interpretations of them. A bikini-clad Boba Fett and her fire-breathing blasters and a dominatrix Darth Vader offered sufficient evidence, as did Han Solo and Chewbacca’s up close and personal dance-off in the aisles.

True, the finale was unquestionably a spectacle unto itself, with the entire cast taking to the stage as Yoda did his best Dave Grohl impression while Admiral Ackbar rapped about it being a trap. But for me, the real showstopper was the scene from Jabba’s Palace. A full-scale version of the sluggish Hutt crime boss was rolled out on stage as slave Leia danced for a crowd of lesser known characters like Squidface and Ree Yees. And while Nine Inch Nails’ ‘I Want to F**K You Like an Animal’ set the tone, slave Leia ultimately strangled Jabba to death.

When the show came to an end, the performers were met with a well-deserved round of thunderous applause. Although gratified by this recurring response to his vision, it only motivates Russell to test the limits of his imagination. “We’ve pushed the touring format as far as we can, now we want to make it bigger and more immersive.”

To Russell, that means engaging en even larger audience with a Broadway-esque structure. It’s why part of the motivation behind this current U.S. tour was to build brand awareness for future projects so that people know when they come see one of his extravaganzas, they’re going to be entertained.

Currently, he’s developing a Ghostbusters’ parody show and a musical on the rise and fall of Arnold Schwarzenegger. If ‘The Empire Strips Back’ is anything to judge by, he’ll most certainly be back.

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