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The Theater Strikes Back

by Jerome Weeks 5 Mar 2009 8:02 AM

How Charles Ross got permission to create his one-man Star Wars show by improvising the Trash Compacter scene for George Lucas: Dallas Morning News interview with Charles Ross Theater Jones interview with Charles Ross KERA radio story: Expanded online story: [opening sequence from One Man Star Wars Trilogy with Charles Ross singing to the movie […]


How Charles Ross got permission to create his one-man Star Wars show by improvising the Trash Compacter scene for George Lucas:

  • KERA radio story:
  • Expanded online story:

[opening sequence from One Man Star Wars Trilogy with Charles Ross singing to the movie theme, “Star Wars! There go the yellow words describing the plot of the entire movie before it’s begun, thanks a lot, you jerks.”]

That, of course is the famous opening of Star Wars. Or, that’s how it goes when Charlie Ross performs his stage show, One Man Star Wars Trilogy. He’s coming to the Out of the Loop Festival this week at Addison’s Water Tower Theater.

In his version, Ross performs the entire trilogy in one hour. With no props, no costumes.

Meanwhile, over in New York, four actors play 132 roles in the Broadway version of the classic Alfred Hitchcock movie, The 39 Steps. This scene is just two of the actors getting a little overexcited portraying an entire railway station [see the video, below].

[“Read all about it!”
“All aboard! All aboard!”
“Read all about it!”
“Keep your eyes peeled, won’t you sir?
“Certainly will, constable.”
“Read all about it!”
“All aboard! All aboard!”
“ – Just, just get on with it.”

How two actors in The 39 Steps on Broadway portray an entire railway station with just some hats and funny accents:

Let’s call these kinds of show The Revenge of Theater! Stage performers are taking on the movies – even the movies’ crowd scenes and their light-saber special effects [sounds of Ross imitating R2D2 and a light saber.]

Hollywood has a much larger audience than theater. Hollywood has all the money. But live theater, live theater has  — [light saber sound] — funny noises.

Of course, theater artists have been imitating — and mocking — movies for years. Kurt Kleinmann is the artistic director of Pegasus Theater in Dallas. Kleinmann has been staging a holiday movie parody since 1986. He started doing them in Deep Ellum; for the past several years, he’s presented them at the Eisemann Center in Richardson.

How a 1930s  movie mystery looks when it’s transferred to the stage — in Living Black and White!smaller-kleinmann

“It’s Beginning to Look a Like Murder!” with Timothy Honnoll, Kurt Kleinmann and Nathan McCoy (l to r)

Kleinmann spoofs movie mysteries from the 1930s. His stage shows feature a detailed re-creation of the movies’ black and white looks, right down to the clothing and makeup — and hammy acting.

[music – oh no!]
“As a doornail!”
“Well … that was shocking.”

These shows’ creators are clearly movie fans. They’re inspired by the movies. Charlie Ross admits to being a Star Wars geek. He compares his one-man show to an 8-year-old boy so in love with trucks, he runs around imitating fire engines.

ROSS: “There has to be genuine affection. But just like you can love your mum or love your dad, there sometimes are things about them that can drive you crazy.”

Taking that little detail and pushing it turns an imitation into a caricature. That’s what these stage shows do, they caricature movies.

ROSS: “Luke Skywalker whines just a little bit more than he does in the films. But it’s still close enough to the truth that you realize, Damn, is he ever a whiner.”

And in caricaturing movies, these stage shows comment on them. Nowhere is the commentary more evident than in David Schmader’s one-man performance, Showgirls. Schmader is also coming to the Out of the Loop Festival this week.

Showgirls follows director Paul Verhoeven’s film about topless dancers in Vegas. The 1995 film is widely considered to be perfectly dreadful, sexist or just amusingly trashy. There are fans who insist that it’s intentionally an ironic satire — there’s very little evidence for this in what Verhoeven has written and said about the film — and there are others who seem to think it’s a documentary about what showbiz is really like. In any event, MGM considerably improved Showgirls‘ entertainment value for a special edition DVD — the studio included Schmader’s observations as  a commentary track.

Schmader’s performance is like a film studies class. He screens Showgirls but stops it or rewinds it occasionally to highlight what he sees as the major themes. These include potato chips, breasts, nail polish, more breasts and failure.

SCHMADER [from the DVD commentary track]: “Every single person involved in the making of the film – from writers, actors, gaffers — every single one of them is making the worst possible decision at every possible time, and it’s this incredible density of failure that makes Showgirls sublime.”

All of these stage shows one-up movies. They prove what live theater can do – with so little. And a little imagination. Kurt Kleinmann calls it the advantage of cheapness — cheapness can inspire the imagation of the stage artists and the audience.

KLEINMANN: “Cheap in a movie is one million, two million, three million dollars. But cheap on stage can be 30 cents. And we can get away with it because it works. Theater engages the imagination in a higher way than movies or television. In movies or television, they give you all the images. In theater, we have to find a way to make you see what we want you to see. And that forces a higher creativity.”