The Empire Strips Back: Star Wars, But Make It Hilarious Burlesque

    You haven’t lived until you’ve seen sexy Tuskin Raiders dancing to System of a Down’s ”Chop Suey” in perfect sync

    A burlesque show for all, but one which will likely be attended primarily by the franchise’s many fanboys and girls, Star Wars: The Empire Strips Back, to quote the show’s saggy and wrinkled Emperor Palpatine, seen belting out Miley Cyrus’s hit in all his naked glory while swinging around on a Death Star disco ball, “came in like a wrecking ball.” And all it ever did was brae—aye-eak me. Let’s start with this: I laughed harder than I ever would’ve expected from a burlesque show.

    Admittedly, I’ve never even been to a burlesque show. And now, as Russall Beattie, the driving force behind the eclectic night of women and wookies told me, I have likely now been spoiled, for any show I may see in the future will not hold up to his spectacle. And he’s not wrong. I had an image of what a burlesque show looks like—I’ve seen Moulin Rouge, so I’m semi-familiar with the format. Or so I thought.

    I entered The Empire Strips Back expecting to see a few semi-nude women in Star Wars cosplay, a little bit of dancing, and some razzle-dazzle. What I saw was a galaxy far, far away from the expected.

    By the climax of the show two hours later, the entire audience had risen from their seats, were bouncing up and down, and screaming in a frenzied chorus in response to a break-dancing Chewbacca and a rapping, moonwalking Han Solo. Yeah! (You’ll catch up.)

    Leia & R2D2 The Empire Strips Back
    Photo by Craig Ridgwell

    Over 120 minutes, we were treated to a series of splendid oddities, such as Princess Leia gracefully and elegantly weaving her way across the stage as R2D2 moved around her, making it rain. The production value, the effort that must have gone into developing a life-size R2D2 capable of following a dancer around while spewing cash is a testament to the love of Star Wars and likely, dancers, from the innovators behind the scenes. This show has a level of dedication and loyalty that exceeds expectations.

    They call it a burlesque show. And yes, there are women that give a hint, one might say a glimpse, of the dark side. but as Beattie himself told LAMag, “We are a Star Wars first experience.”

    I watched, in awe, as the confusingly attractive Tuskin Raiders danced in perfect synchronization to, of all the songs in the world, “Chop Suey” by System of a Down. Who dances to “Chop Suey?” I mean, I love System of the Down, but never in my life have I even considered creating a dance routine for the heavy metal track—other than flailing my head back and forth. It was more effective when I had long hair. Am I old? Is this what old age is? I’m 31…Jesus. Jesus Christo. I’m just old enough to have been excited about The Phantom Menace…before its release. And I’m old enough to have learned to suppress the devastated once I saw the stinker. 

    Eric Calrissian The Empire Strips Back
    Photo by Craig Ridgwell

    I’m gonna say something blasphemous to a significant portion of you reading this review—I’m not a huge fan of Star Wars. Sure, there are some iconic scenes, memorable dialogue, and killer props. But there are some bits of Star Wars that are…problematic.  As Eric Calrissian (Lando’s cousin) pointed out, “Obi-Wan knew that Luke and Leia were siblings…He could’ve warned him, bruh.” Instead, he just let the dice roll, the scamp.

    My point: The performers, the writers, and the creator, are, first and foremost, fans. I want to illustrate again—you hear or read “burlesque,” and you may think, OK…strippers. But I’m telling you that what you’ll hear and read is a deep dive into everything that inspired the original fandom.

    “There’s no fandom like the Star Wars fandom. Star Wars is the original fandom. Star Wars created fandom culture,” Beattie declares in our chat.

    Calrissian was also sure to point out how bananas it was that there were people in the audience that had never even seen Star Wars; this is entirely true. The crowd had a similar composition to what one might see at an actual Star Wars premiere. I watched as men dressed as Wookiees, women dressed as Leia and Obi-Wan, and even Luke, found their seats and took in the spectacle. This is a show that, dare I say, inspires the fandom just as much as the franchise itself. But there were also audience members who were clueless about the ins-and-outs of Star Wars. This is a show made for the fanatic that doesn’t try to gate-keep those who are less knowledgeable about the ways of the force.

    And my god, the set pieces and props. From the aforementioned R2D2, to a to scale land speeder, and even an anamotronic life-sized Jabba the Hutt who, in the supposedly safe confines of his palace, sang the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy” as an “uncompensated worker Leia” danced around him before playing out the scene exactly how any Star Wars fan would expect.

    Beattie is that Star Wars fan, too, and he absolutely oozes passion and talent. He’s been doing this for so long that I can’t even list all his credentials, which include burlesque shows in the Game of Thrones and Batman worlds, and aspirations of creating a show within the Ghostbusters universe. It’s not just the burlesque shows, either—he’s created penthouse-style Star Wars-themed magazines (aptly titled Wookieerotica), commercials for intergalactic condoms featuring some hot, hot Ewok love, and even a Star Wars: The Empire Strips Back Holiday Special in the vein of the original, poorly received Star Wars: Holiday Special. These projects are just some of the latest ventures in Beattie’s career, which spans over a decade.

    He’s been conceptualizing, casting, overseeing prop and set design, and directing these shows and shows like them since before a Millennial like me had even watched the original trilogy all the way through. Admittedly, I’m a bit late to the fandom. Don’t judge me too harshly. And all my Jar Jar Binks fans, say “Heyyyy Ayeee.”

    The Empire Strips Back is at The Montalbán until January 28.

    Stay on top of the latest in L.A. news, food, and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.