‘The Empire Strips Back’ a tantalizing bit of burlesque fan service
by Cassiopeia Guthrie, March 26, 2023
Raucous comedy meets pure sex appeal in the touring production of The Empire Strips Back, currently performing as a pop-up in a warehouse in Logan Heights.
Marketed as a burlesque parody, this show has it all. Performed in a spare concrete warehouse space, the producers have focused on creating an experience that begins when you walk through a tunnel into the venue, ducking through LED lights and stomping on steel as though you’re entering a ship. This effect, achieved through the use of a sea container, serves as an immersive gateway to the dark and sexy galaxy beyond. Inside, a canned and bottled beverage and cocktail bar and merchandise stand are set across from full length posters that tout the merchandise, including a publication called Wookiee ’Rotica and a calendar, Saber. The audience is seated in tight formation in the warehouse, which creates a sense of elbow-brushing community, but also ensures that everyone can see the happenings on the deep stage.
And it’s what happens on that stage that really sparkles. The production company has spared no expense for lights, sets, props, and sound, and all of these components weave seamlessly into the fabric of the performance as a troupe of limber, talented, and comedic dancers strut their stuff, under the auspices of being much beloved Star Wars characters.
The show itself is a string of loosely strung together dance numbers from “across the Galaxy,” featuring a plethora of personages from Star Wars lore, each performer as talented as the next. I was immediately struck by the opening number, which featured a Hoth–bundled dancer on a Tauntaun who flirted, trounced, de-clothed, and ultimately wrapped her nearly nude body in the entrails of the beast. Fan service, check. Hot even under the illusion of being cold, check. This was followed by a sexy striptease over the hood of a speeder titled “Tatooine’s Dirty Little Secret” and a duo of Princess Leia/R2D2 duets.
While it would be impossible to comprise the entire Star Wars canon in a 90-minute show, creator Russall S. Beattie has captured a pretty solid variety of characters in this production. There are Stormtroopers, Boba Fett, Twi’leks, C3P0, Darth Vader and Han Solo. And to say that this is a striptease and dance show does not do it credit - there is also singing, puppetry, a solid homage to classic rock, and raunchy humor that has the audience in stitches.
The performers in this production are exceptional; in many cases, their classical and hip hop training are on full display. It is clear that the casting has selected top-notch talent. Their dances, accompanied by elaborate and surprising set pieces, over the top (and life-size!) puppets and animatronics, and provocative-while-evocative costumes, are sensational. Performers Tevyn Cole, Camryn Mandelbaum, Logan Schickel, and Camdyn Stradford, three of whom are represented by BlocLA, according to their social media bios, are standouts in their solo performances, but in truth, each and every dancer is outstanding.
Likewise, the lighting of this show is stunning. Some dances are backlit, creating tantalizing silhouettes; others lean heavily into colored LEDs, which are effective for setting the mood and establishing location. All lighting plots work well toward creating a space into which the dancers invitingly welcome the audience.
From a consent standpoint, I respected and was appreciative of a very strict no photo/video rule, which was enforced throughout the performance by ushers along both sides of the theater, and reinforced by a Lando-emulating comedian emcee early on. While the delivery of this warning was tongue in cheek, I can see how this would protect not only the production but, more importantly, the performers on stage. And speaking of said emcee, comedian Eric Newton did a great job keeping the audience pumped and engaged throughout the production. His pithy one-liners didn’t pull punches, and he had the room eating out of the palm of his hand.
All in all, this hit show, running in San Diego on an extension through April and then continuing in Chicago afterwards, is a must-see for Star Wars enthusiasts, fans of burlesque, and those who enjoy the theatrics… and don’t mind a bit of skin in the process.
The Empire Strips Back can be enjoyed by 18+ audiences at Logan Heights’ Alderaan Memorial Theatre at 1944 Commercial St. through April 30. Tickets can be purchased at theempirestripsback.com.