Once upon a -- sorry, I mean: A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (cue theme music) -- there was a movie. And then there were two. And then the holy Star Wars trinity: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Sporting then-revolutionary special effects, clipped dialogue and wooden acting (a tradition that continues in the Star Wars prequel released in the past few years), the trilogy presents the archetypal story of a boy and girl and a man and Wookie on a quest to save the universe from evil and old men who over-articulate.
After all the recent plays, books and TV shows turned into movies, it's great to see a movie moved to the stage. And who better to toast (or is it roast?) Star Wars than Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre, the only company in St. Louis specializing in parodies. Director and adaptor Donna Northcott describes Magic Smoking Monkey's mission: "We pride ourselves on cheap humor, cheap production values and cheap tickets." The One-Hour Star Wars Trilogy: Live! accomplishes those goals with jokes that make you groan, special effects that you could re-create in your basement and nonstop amusement-park action. Appropriately, as the preshow "Disco Star Wars" music fades out, Northcott asks the audience to "please keep your arms and legs inside the car while the show is in motion."
The sold-out crowd cheered as the opening credits stumbled across the screen (a salute to A/V geeks everywhere) and the roller-coaster Star Wars journey began. The impersonations were, for the most part, dead-on, particularly Amy Marie Julia Elz as C3PO, Julie Layton as Princess Leia, Christopher Jones as Yoda and Admiral Ackbar, and David Cooperstein as Chewbacca. Their earnest portrayals were funny because they were so accurate, making us laugh at ourselves for taking these characters so seriously in the movies. Michael Bowdern's Luke Skywalker, in contrast, was funny because the character was so exaggerated, from his overly windblown blond hair to his overdone looks of confusion to his overzealous infatuation with his sister. Striking a pleasing middle ground between impersonation and exaggeration were Jim Ousley as Han Solo, Sam Huber as Darth Vader, Stephen Logan as Obi-Wan Kenobi and David Wassilak as the Emperor. (That's three styles of acting, a trilogy of technique!)
The audience clearly comprised many Star Wars fans (such as myself) who could probably recite most of the dialogue from memory. But Northcott's smart adaptation and direction made the show enjoyable whether you knew the movies well or not. A woman sitting next to me had never actually seen the original Star Wars trilogy (how is that possible?), but she laughed nearly as much as I did. Instead of faithfully presenting every aspect of the films, Northcott and her cast created humor through unexpected twists and solving staging dilemmas in creative ways. Yoda, created by master puppeteer Frank Oz, is re-created here in a way that acknowledges Oz's genius and generates laughs at the same time. Things that are impossible to stage are given a quick line of explanation, and the show continues at its breakneck speed.
The most enjoyable part of the evening is the cast's infectious "What the heck, let's have some fun" attitude. They gleefully create lots of cheesy special effects, from the "asteroid field" (the cast throwing crumpled-up balls of newspaper at the ship) to the actor-provided sounds of the light-sabers to the Emperor's "lightning" fingers. It was somehow fitting that Bowdern lost his "Luke" wig at the end of the show and had to hurriedly plop it on his head for the final tableau. That kind of mistake could be terrible in a realistic play, but in this satiric romp it's just one more bit of humor. (And I wouldn't be surprised if they incorporate that mistake into the show!)
The seventeen-member cast warms up for The One-Hour Star Wars Trilogy Live by presenting a five-minute version of The Lord of the Rings, a not-so-subtle nod to the popular new movies following the Star Wars' tradition (although one might argue that the acting is better in Rings). The evening ends with a Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre tradition: a drawing for a show-related door prize. I, sadly, did not win the C3PO Pez dispenser.
But I'll have another chance when I see the show again this weekend with my kids ... although I must say I've got a bad feeling about this.