Is that a blaster in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?

A scene from the burlesque parody The Empire Strips Back at the Great Star Theatre in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Below: A Stormtrooper with a different plan of attack. Photos by Kevin Berne

The light sabers were up and out Friday night at the early performance of The Empire Strips Back, a burlesque show that aims to heat up the Star Wars universe at the Great Star Theatre in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Created by Russall S. Beattie, The Empire is adult-oriented fan service for the Star Wars faithful who aim to take their fandom to a more adult level than usually allowed at movie theaters or comic conventions. It’s like fan fiction come to life as favorite characters are allowed to get down and dirty, play with some gender twists and provide a few sci-fi kinks to the classic art of burlesque.

To be clear, this is really burlesque and not some pole-dancing nudie show (not that there’s anything wrong with that; this is just not that). This is a theatrical tease – tantalizing titillation and lots of skin without much actual nudity. There’s vivacious dancing throughout the show’s two-plus hours as well as abundant laughs, many courtesy of cape-wearing emcee Eric Newton, whose character is part of the Lando Calrissian family tree, as well as some clever twists to some of the scenes.

Most of the Star Warscharacters you’d expect to see are here, just maybe not exactly as you remember them. At the Friday night performance I saw, the rowdy, responsive audience showed big love for a pas de deux for Princess Leia and R2-D2 that turns from a graceful dance to Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” before shifting into a booty-shaking “Dirrty” by Christina Aguilera (featuring Redman). Not to give anything away, but it turns out that R2 really likes Leia’s dancing. As he should; she’s fantastic, as are all the dancers on stage here.


My audience was filled with couples and vociferous bro-types shouting (literally) about their light sabers, and though they were responsive to all of the acts and to Newton’s sometimes stumbling but earnest comedy efforts, the act they seemed to love the most involved Han Solo and Chewbacca dancing (not stripping) to a variety of songs including “Sexy and I Know It” and “I Want It That Way” and getting the audience on their feet, yelling and squatting and otherwise turning the theater into a Wookiee stampede.

All the main Star Wars saga players are here in one form or another, as well as appearances by Admiral Akbar, The Emperor (has to be seen to be believed), Jabba the Hutt, a tauntaun, Imperial Guard, Stormtroopers and Boba Fett. Happily, Jar Jar Binks only gets a passing mention. The sultry soundtrack varies wildly from Nicki Minaj and Guns N’ Roses to Michael Jackson and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. There’s even, if you can bear it, Miley Cyrus and Tenacious D.

A couple scenes, including the Jabba tableaux complete with Leia in bikini and chains and a bizarre “In the Air Tonight” drum solo by Newton with some vague projection technology, still need some finessing. But for the most part, The Empire Strips Back is exactly what you expect and exactly what the fans want: Star Wars with the sexy dialed way, way up in a galaxy far, far away.

The Empire Strips Back is at the Great Star Theatre, 636 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $49-$100. Shows are at 8pm Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8pm and 10:30pm Fridays, 7pm and 9:30pm Saturdays and 7pm Sundays. Visit

A Wishful toast to Fisher’s Drinking


The force is strong with this one.

Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking, her one-woman stage autobiography, continues its wild ride.

The Bay Area saw the show twice at Berkeley Repertory Theatre before it landed on Broadway. The book with the same name was a New York Times bestseller. And now Wishful Drinking is an HBO documentary. Let the Star Wars nerds rejoice.

The show, subtitled “A one-woman show about being Carrie Fisher,” has its broadcast debut at 9pm Sunday, Dec. 12 and repeats through Dec. 28 (on HBO) and Dec. 29 (on HBO 2).

Visit HBO’s Wishful Drinking homepage here.

I don’t have HBO, so I’ll have to enjoy these clips from the movie and wait for the inevitable (as yet unannounced) DVD. There are more clips on the website.

Review: Carrie Fisher’s ‘Wishful Drinking’

Opened Feb. 19, 2008 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Sex, drugs, drinking, celebrity: Fisher tackles it all in Wishful Drinking
three 1/2 stars

Her mother is famous for, among other things, a movie musical with Gene Kelly and buckets of rain. Now Carrie Fisher is, in a sense, carrying on her mother’s legacy, though she’s singing in the pain.

The central mantra of Fisher’s beguiling one-woman show, Wishful Drinking, now on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda stage, is “If my life weren’t funny, it would just be true. And that is unacceptable.”

She’s right. Life is too strange and difficult not to have a sense of humor. As Fisher says in the show, when she finds her teenage daughter laughing about her crazy family, she’s glad her daughter can laugh. “That may save your life.”

A wicked sense of humor has been the making of Fisher, whose glittering opening night audience reflected much of what she was talking about in her autobiographical show. There were your basic movie stars – Sean Penn, James Franco. Your music legends – Bonnie Raitt. And the man who Fisher jokingly says “ruined her life,” George Lucas, father of the Star Wars saga and creator of Princess Leia, the role that will follow Fisher to her grave (with stops at comic book conventions along the way).

And then there were Debbie and Eddie. The two people Fisher talks about most, her mother, Debbie Reynolds, and father, Eddie Fisher, were there on opposite sides of the mezzanine. With her on the right, him on the left and Fisher in the middle on stage, it was real-life, Hollywood-theatrical Surround Sound.

Fisher enters singing. While she warbles “Happy Days Are Here Again,” headlines from her storied past flash on the screen behind her (the cozy, high-tech set, the lights and the projections are by Alexander V. Nichols).

She jumps right into the tabloid fodder by addressing her most recent incident: A good friend, a gay man, died in her home. Not only in her home, but in her bed. With her in it. “He didn’t just die in his sleep. He died in mine,” she says.

After taking questions from the audience, Fisher goes back to her childhood and that one time her dad left her mom – for Elizabeth Taylor. But here’s the thing I didn’t know. Before the scandal, Eddie and Debbie were good friends with Elizabeth and her husband, Mike Todd. In fact, Eddie was best man at Mike and Liz’s wedding and Debbie was the matron of honor. Debbie even washed Liz’s hair on her wedding day.

This leads Fisher, with the help of a large chart, to hold forth on “Hollywood Inbreeding 101,” with her family and its assorted, mostly bad, marriages, as examples.

She imitates her mother (“Hello, dear, this is your mother, Debbie”) and makes fun of her father (“He’s had so many facelifts he looks Asian”). She smokes clove cigarettes (the writer of the show, some hack named Carrie Fisher, makes her do it, though the clove part is a concession to tetchy Berkeley audiences) and drinks Coke Zero on ice. She’s not shilling for the soft drink, she says. She really likes this diet soda, while most others, she maintains, “taste like drinking poison from an aluminum wound.”

Costumed (by Christina Wright) in a drape-y look somewhere between gypsy and high-class madam, the 51-year-old Fisher has a low, gravelly voice that’s not ideal for the theater (the microphone helps), but boy does that voice convey dark, cynical humor beautifully.

Fisher is hilarious, which is no surprise to anyone who has read her books (if you haven’t read her most recent, The Best Awful, do yourself a favor and pick it up). What’s more surprising is her good cheer. Even while talking about her failed relationships – divorced from Paul Simon, the father of her daughter leaves her for a man – and her mental illness (manic depressive, bipolar disorder), Fisher maintains a unique brand of bleak optimism, of world-weary hope: The worst will likely happen, but everything will just as likely be fine.

She has a brilliant mind and sharp comic timing. On the page, she tends to be a little brainier, but onstage, she’s full-on Catskills comedian. Whether she’s discussing Princess Leia while wearing the famous cinnamon-roll hair-do wig or molesting an audience volunteer, Fisher is someone you want to hang out with and listen to. The celebrity part of her life appeals to that silly “oh, look! Something shiny” aspect in us, but she’s got substance under the stardust.

She’s got a lot to say about our messed-up culture, about body chemistry, about families, about maturity. But she says it all in such a way that it all sounds like a well-honed comic monologue that just happens to have the incisive direction of Tony Taccone behind it.

I would have loved some more serious Fisher moments in the two-act, two-hour show, but maybe those just aren’t in the repertoire. I’d be very interested, for instance, to hear more about her time at drama college in London, which she says was the “only unobserved” period in her life.

Frank and forthcoming and, I’m delighted to say, occasionally filthy, Wishful Drinking is a theatrical memoir with a whole lot of kick to it. Fisher says that if someone called the show over the top, she’d have to agree. “But imagine what I’m leaving out.”

Wishful Drinking continues through March 30 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$69. Call 510-647-2949 or visit for information.

Review: ‘One-Man Star Wars Trilogy’

opened Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2007, Post Street Theatre

For fans only: One-man `Star Wars’ has major dork appeal
three stars Geek mythology

Charles Ross is saving the galaxy one geek at a time. I use the word “geek” with love. It takes one to know one.

Ross goes so far as to call himself a “professional geek,” and it’s hard to argue with him. For nearly six years, this amiable Canadian has been performing One-Man Star Wars Trilogy, which made its Bay Area debut Tuesday at San Francisco’s Post Street Theatre.

The title pretty much says it all: One hard-working guy performs three classic sci-fi movies in just about an hour.

If you know your Star Wars movies (and we’re talking the original three, not those more recent, nominally human debacles), you’ll love every obscure reference in Ross’ vast repertoire of obscure references.

If names like Jabba the Hutt or Lando Calrissian mean nothing to you, this is not the play for you. Granted, the show will be over before you can grab much of a nap, but it’ll be torture for you, and Ross’ exertions will look like the weirdest, least effective exercise class you’ve ever seen.

But for those who cherish every R2-D2 beep (and Ross does terrific R2 squeaks, whistles and grunts), One-Man Star Wars Trilogy is better than Shakespeare.

Dressed in black coveralls, Ross begins at the beginning, with the yellow letters crawling across the screen and John Williams’ bombastic score blasting. We get a hint of Ross’ somewhat cavalier approach when he turns all that scrolling verbiage into so much “blah, blah, blah.” Apparently he doesn’t care about that stuff either.

He jumps right into the first movie, which he dispatches in about 20 minutes.

Highlights include a petulant Luke Skywalker, who comes across as a whiner with ’70s feathered hair, an asthmatic Darth Vader and a crotch-grabbing Han Solo, who’s not above uttering a little “schwing” whenever Princess Leia is around.

Ross’ revisionist version allows us a moment of indignation when, at the award ceremony that closes Star Wars, poor Chewbacca doesn’t get a medal of honor.

Just as in real life, the second movie is better than the first and not quite as silly as the third. Ross doesn’t do a very good Yoda — he sounds like a prospector staking a claim on the Yukon — but he makes up for it with his dead-on impersonation of a disabled AT-AT (all-terrain armored transport, those giant machines that look like the loading cranes at the Oakland docks).

By the time he gets to Return of the Jedi, Ross is cracking himself up because with all the light saber action, he can’t help spitting on the people in the front row.

The true Star Wars geeks — and the opening-night audience was full of them — howl over the minutiae that baffles the rest of us. I mean, is Ross slicing open the belly of a dead tauntaun on the frozen planet Hoth or what?

If you haven’t ever seen the movies or have mostly forgotten them, you can pretty much forget figuring out what’s going on. Between the breakneck pace of T.J. Dawe’s direction and Ross’ liberties taken with both plot and character, it’s sort of a free-for-all.

No one, however, whether you know the movies or not, will be able to resist Ross’ depiction of Jabba the Hutt, the giant worm-like baddie that chains up Leia and makes her wear a golden bikini that only Cher would envy.

Mercifully, Ross keeps the Ewok references to a minimum, though he does a very funny version of their song that ends Return of the Jedi.

Ross calls his show a sketch that has “gone very wrong…or very right depending on how you look at it.”

For Star Wars fans, he’s a rock star, and this show is heaven. To others, he’s a talented, energetic geek performing for other geeks. The force is strong in this one. Long may he geek out.

Light sabers up!

He doesn’t live in a galaxy far, far away, but he does live on an island somewhat far away.

Charles Ross, the man behind One-Man Star Wars Trilogy, lives in Victoria, British Columbia, a picturesque hamlet on Canada’s Vancouver Island.

“It’s a nice, little, secret place in a lot of ways,” Ross says on the phone. “And it’s away from the whole hubbub.”

The “hubbub” he’s referring to is completely self-inflicted. Since 2001, Ross has been famous (in the way that people in the theater world are famous without being all that famous) as the guy who condensed the original trio of Star Wars movies (episodes IV, V and VI for the geeks) into an hour-long show. He performs all the parts, re-creates all the sounds effects and hums all the music.

It has taken about six years, but Ross is finally bringing Luke, Leia and Papa Vader to the Bay Area. His One-Man Star Wars Trilogy opens Feb. 27 at San Francisco’s Post Street Theatre.

This whole thing is rooted — not surprisingly — in Ross’ childhood, which was spent partly in rural British Columbia and partly in Hawaii (to escape the Canadian cold). For various reasons, lack of substantial channels among them, Ross’ TV watching was pretty much confined to a VHS tape of Star Wars.

He saw the movie more than 400 times (his mother apparently counted). He saw the sequels, The Empire Strikes Back and Revenge of the Jedi, sorry RETURN of the Jedi, about 50 times each.

So when he had the brainstorm to perform the movies himself, he didn’t need to re-watch the movies at all. He just went with the movies in his head.

The 32-year-old Ross has now performed his Star Wars show more than 1,000 times in 116 cities around the world, including a five-month run off-Broadway.

His fans include Vin Diesel and Ian McKellen along with Star Wars actors who played an Ewok (Warwick Davis) and Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch) and a host of Storm Troopers.

He also has one very important fan: his Imperial Highness George Lucas.

Rather than sue Ross or slap him with a cease-and-desist order (which the Lord of the Rings people did with Ross’ one-man Rings trilogy), Lucas embraced the show, gave it an official license and invited Ross to perform at several Star Wars conventions.

“That’s the closest I’ll ever get to being a rock star,” Ross says. “It’s nothing short of a miracle to perform at a Star Wars convention. Talk about the perfect demographic. I cannot describe what it’s like to perform this show in front of hard-core, screaming Star Wars geeks.”

Ross says he also loves performing for regular audiences, even though some of the details zoom past them like a landspeeder stirring dust on Tatooine. His favorite character to do is Ian McDiarmid’s Palpatine, one of the bad guys.

“He’s a Shakespearian actor, so he takes Lucas’ script to places the others, except maybe Alec Guinness, can’t,” Ross says. “He’s a lot of fun to do. I’ve never been fond of my Yoda. But hey, you do your best. It’s a short show. What doesn’t work goes by quickly.”

Lucas has never seen the show (except possibly on the DVDs Ross has sent him), but given that he lives in the Bay Area, there’s a chance he might finally catch it.

“Of all the people on the planet, he’s one of the busier ones,” Ross says. “But maybe he’ll come check it out. If I got to meet George Lucas and he saw the show, it couldn’t get better than that.”

Well, maybe it could: Ross could be turned into an action figure.

For information about One-Man Star Wars Trilogy, call (415) 771-6900 or visit Visit Ross’ Web site here.

The force & Kiki

Here’s some interesting local theater news — some high-powered casting, a Skywalker-y night out and, be still my heart, the return of Kiki & Herb:

Carl Lumbly, last seen on TV’s “Alias,” heads the cast of Jesus Hopped the `A’ Train, the next show at SF Playhouse. Other cast members include Susi Damilano, Daveed Diggs, Joe Madero and Gabriel Marin. Bill English directs the Stephen Adly Guirgis drama, which begins previews Feb. 28 and opens March 3. Call (415) 677-9596 or visit

In other exciting news, at long last, Canadian actor Charles Ross brings his hit solo show, One-Man Star Wars Trilogy, to San Francisco’s Post Street Theatre for 14 performances only, Feb. 27 through March 11.

Since he first performed the show five years ago, Ross has been in demand for what critics have called “effortlessly energetic…he nails the tiny details that fans obsess over.” As the title indicates, Ross takes a brisk, nonstop shot through the first three Star Wars movies, the result of too much of his childhood, Ross says, spent in “a galaxy far, far away.”

Ross does all the character voices, recreates the special effects, sings the music, fights both sides of the light saber battles and, of course, kisses the princess, er, his sister, er, the princess.
Tickets are $37 and go on sale Sunday. Call (415) 771-6900 or visit

And finally, fans of the truly bizarre (in the best possible way) will be happy to know that Kiki and Herb are returning to the city that gave them birth.

Yes, Justin Bond (Kiki) and Kenny Mellman (Herb) return to San Francisco, where they first started singing in 1989, with Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway.

As the title suggests, this is the show the duo performed on Broadway last summer, and it opens July 13 at the American Conservatory Theater and runs through July 29.
Kiki and Herb haven’t been in the Bay Area since a triumphant New Year’s Eve appearance when 2005 turned into 2006, so we’re all ready for the duo’s _ how shall we say? _ unique version of songs ranging from The Cure to Public Enemy to Dan Fogleberg. Tickets are $20 to $60. Call (415) 749-2228 or go to

And now, enjoy some Kiki love: