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A burlesque extension of the Star Wars universe

The Empire Strips Back aims for the funny familiar

Well, of course
Well, of course
Past Event

The Empire Strips Back: A Burlesque Parody

  • Saturday, June 2, 2018, 8 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
  • Spreckels Theatre, 121 Broadway, San Diego
  • 18+ / $45 - $75

Pulitzer-nominated political cartoonist Jeff Danziger once wrote that he wanted his panels to work like an icicle slipped down your back — funny in a way, but also discomfiting. Laughter tinged with the twinge that follows discovery: Oh my, I hadn’t seen the Palestinian conflict that way.

Russall Beattie also wants to make you laugh, and odds are, most folks haven’t seen Darth Vader his way: gender-switched, poured into black vinyl, and dancing on stage as part of his Star Wars-themed burlesque The Empire Strips Back (arriving in San Diego on June 2nd for a one-night-only performance at Spreckels Theater downtown). But instead of an icicle, he’s looking to draw guffaws from a warm bath of familiarity: Hey, I recognize that black helmet!

Video:

Miley Cyrus: "Wrecking Ball"

Star Wars is a great theme for parody within burlesque, because it’s so well known,” says Beattie. “The characters are so iconic and so ingrained in popular culture that they do the setup for us. We just have to bring the punchline. So we can gender-switch Darth Vader, but we keep all the character traits: the strength, the intimidation. Or we can subvert The Emperor by having him go into a Silence of the Lambs dance, get fully ‘naked’ in a prosthetic suit, and ride a Death Star mini-ball across the stage to Miley Cyrus’ ‘Wrecking Ball.’ That works only if you know the character.”

(That goes for the performer as well. “If the girls understand the character,” says Beattie, “they know how to embody the character, and also how far they can push it to the left or right to get the desired effect: which is, for us, a bit of fun.”)

Chewbacca steps up

But when you’re working with the familiar, you risk ruining the joke if something is off. In the show’s first iteration (wrought as a gag for a bar-sized venue), Beattie made the costumes himself, and even played Chewbacca. “You could get who the characters were, but as soon as I started spending time and effort and money on getting the costume closer to what people expected, it just worked so much better.” Eventually, he obtained a professional costume, but he still lacked Chewie’s towering height. Stilts made the dancing awkward, “and that’s what made Chewbacca so good, was the dancing.” (Subversion again.) His current Chewbacca is a 7-foot professional hip-hop dancer, outfitted by the guy who made the Wookie suits for the Star Wars prequels. “People aren’t distracted by the costume now; they just see him as Chewbacca. And our R2D2 may be a very expensive and temperamental prop, but when people see R2D2 on my stage, it’s the same for them as when it’s in a film. It feels like an extension of that universe.”

R2D2 gets ready to make it rain

Wait: they made you a genuine Wookie suit? “First they asked if I had the money. But a lot of them are big kids — Star Wars is the reason why a lot of them got into the business. So they get a kick out of it: ‘I’ve always wanted to make an R2D2!’ And then we started having fun with it. Our R2D2 has strobing disco lights, and he also makes it rain: he can shoot 100 one-dollar bills up into the air.”

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Well, of course
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Past Event

The Empire Strips Back: A Burlesque Parody

  • Saturday, June 2, 2018, 8 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
  • Spreckels Theatre, 121 Broadway, San Diego
  • 18+ / $45 - $75

Pulitzer-nominated political cartoonist Jeff Danziger once wrote that he wanted his panels to work like an icicle slipped down your back — funny in a way, but also discomfiting. Laughter tinged with the twinge that follows discovery: Oh my, I hadn’t seen the Palestinian conflict that way.

Russall Beattie also wants to make you laugh, and odds are, most folks haven’t seen Darth Vader his way: gender-switched, poured into black vinyl, and dancing on stage as part of his Star Wars-themed burlesque The Empire Strips Back (arriving in San Diego on June 2nd for a one-night-only performance at Spreckels Theater downtown). But instead of an icicle, he’s looking to draw guffaws from a warm bath of familiarity: Hey, I recognize that black helmet!

Video:

Miley Cyrus: "Wrecking Ball"

Star Wars is a great theme for parody within burlesque, because it’s so well known,” says Beattie. “The characters are so iconic and so ingrained in popular culture that they do the setup for us. We just have to bring the punchline. So we can gender-switch Darth Vader, but we keep all the character traits: the strength, the intimidation. Or we can subvert The Emperor by having him go into a Silence of the Lambs dance, get fully ‘naked’ in a prosthetic suit, and ride a Death Star mini-ball across the stage to Miley Cyrus’ ‘Wrecking Ball.’ That works only if you know the character.”

(That goes for the performer as well. “If the girls understand the character,” says Beattie, “they know how to embody the character, and also how far they can push it to the left or right to get the desired effect: which is, for us, a bit of fun.”)

Chewbacca steps up

But when you’re working with the familiar, you risk ruining the joke if something is off. In the show’s first iteration (wrought as a gag for a bar-sized venue), Beattie made the costumes himself, and even played Chewbacca. “You could get who the characters were, but as soon as I started spending time and effort and money on getting the costume closer to what people expected, it just worked so much better.” Eventually, he obtained a professional costume, but he still lacked Chewie’s towering height. Stilts made the dancing awkward, “and that’s what made Chewbacca so good, was the dancing.” (Subversion again.) His current Chewbacca is a 7-foot professional hip-hop dancer, outfitted by the guy who made the Wookie suits for the Star Wars prequels. “People aren’t distracted by the costume now; they just see him as Chewbacca. And our R2D2 may be a very expensive and temperamental prop, but when people see R2D2 on my stage, it’s the same for them as when it’s in a film. It feels like an extension of that universe.”

R2D2 gets ready to make it rain

Wait: they made you a genuine Wookie suit? “First they asked if I had the money. But a lot of them are big kids — Star Wars is the reason why a lot of them got into the business. So they get a kick out of it: ‘I’ve always wanted to make an R2D2!’ And then we started having fun with it. Our R2D2 has strobing disco lights, and he also makes it rain: he can shoot 100 one-dollar bills up into the air.”

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