LA theatergoers of a certain age may recall getting all dolled up, venturing deep into the bowels of Hollywood and entering a certain movie theater-turned-playhouse at 1615 Vine Street to watch theatrically-minded stars like James Earl Jones, Jason Robards and Lily Tomlin perform in American classics…
… Anyone out there still awake? Admittedly, the productions I’m talking about took place in the theatrical equivalent of a galaxy far, far away back when the venue currently known as the Ricardo Montalbán Theater was called the James A. Doolittle Theater (or even further back, the Huntington Hartford ). But right now, if you take yourself to the Montalban for an evening of entertainment, you’ll be treated not to Faye Dunaway in MASTER CLASS but instead to HOT, NEARLY NAKED DANCERS PEELING OUT OF THEIR STAR WARS COSTUMES AND GYRATING TO NIKI MINAJ, GUNS N ROSES AND LMFAO.
Perhaps I have your attention back? Righto. The performance known as THE EMPIRE STRIPS BACK, a burlesque parody of the STAR WARS films created by Russall S. Battie, delivers exactly what it advertises and does so quite deftly. Skillfully melding elements of traditional strip tease with a knowledge and deep affection of the STAR WARS franchise, STRIPS BACK figures to attract both leering dude bros and sci-fi obsessed geeks, to say nothing of the curious. All and sundry are treated to a decidedly humorous tone, plenty of flesh (some explicit, mostly peek-a-boo and almost all of it female) exposed by several well-trained and hard-twerking dancers.
Dreamed up by Battie in 2011, STRIPS BACK has been a hit throughout Australia and on tour (The current version arrives from a run in San Francisco and is bound for San Diego.) Yes, the STAR WARS franchise has been spoofed and sent-up to no end in its more than 40 years of existence, so a parody is nothing ground-breaking. But say this about STRIPS BACK: it is not cheaply rendered. Whether we’re talking about costumes, props, droids, masks…someone has expended a lot of care and bucks to keep the whole assemblage from looking rinky-dink or cheesy.
So when you watch “Luke Skywalker” giving his landspeeder a bath to the strains of Niki Minaj’s “Starship,” the craft looks pretty damned authentic. Not that anybody will actually be looking too closely at the car once our thong-wearing lady Luke starts wrapping her legs around it and dousing herself with water. Or how about that tauntaun rider in the opening act who knocks the beast out with a couple of strategic thrusts and closes out her disrobing by wrapping its entrails around her breasts? Graphic? More like cheekily naughty.
There is no narrative sequence. The characters – human and machine – are mostly from the original trilogy and appear here as one-offs. Princess Leia is the one exception. Following a balletic, holograph-y dance as an appreciative R2D2 rolls and beeps along, our Alderaan princess loses her cinnamon bun braids and quite a lot else. She reappears a few scenes later in her “Slave Leia” garb chained to Jabba the Hutt with whom she gets decidedly frisky. Rendered life-sized, Jabba – thankfully – does not peel. Most of the performers of THE EMPIRE STRIPS BACK are curvaceous, shapely and long-legged women wearing (at least initially) long flowing robes, suggestive breast plates, stormtrooper helmets, etc. They are trained in ballet and they know how to move seductively, not just drop their clothes.
It’s not all slinky grace. Take the sequence featuring the Emperor, whose prosthetic genitalia is on display and flapping freely as he mounts a suspended Deathstar roughly the size of a giant medicine ball and swings across the stage to the strains of Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball.” Later, Han Solo (Tevyn Cole) and Chewbacca (James Berry) fire up the crowd with a healthy dose of homoerotic gusto to a medley of numbers ranging from Run DMC to Limp Bizkit to the Spice Girls. STRIPS BACK could use less of emcee Eric Newton, who – dressed in a Lando Calrissian style cape – cracks wise and tries to amp up the audience during breaks between acts. Only sporadically funny, the man is trying, but it’s not like anybody in attendance has come for something other than the STAR WARS visuals or the skin. Production values are better than average with a lot of go-go bright lighting (designed by Peter Rubie) and some fun effects.
Bottom line: liquor up, prepare to get loud (but not vulgar), have a blast and may the farce be with you.
THE EMPIRE STRIPS BACK plays through January 28, 2023 at the Montalbán Theater, 1615 Vine St. Hollywood.
Photo by Craig Ridgwell