How to do the Star Wars trilogy in 58 minutes
When Ross finished performing, his elbow- and kneepads scuffed and clothes drenched in sweat, 3,000 fans stood up and cheered like braying Wookiees.
Charles Ross's touring stage show, "The One-Man Star Wars Trilogy," is as audacious as the title suggests.
Without the use of props - or any other actors - Mr. Ross sings John Williams's theme music, mimes the crawling yellow text at the beginning of each episode, replicates the sound effects of whooshing X-Wing Starfighters, and impersonates all the characters, even minor ones such as Admiral Akbar, the tunic-wearing squid-like creature that makes Jabba the Hut look like a pretty boy. Improbable as it may sound, Ross accomplishes the whole thing in 58 minutes.
Demand for Ross's critically acclaimed show is suddenly hotter than the twin suns of Tatooine now that "Episode III: Revenge of the Sith" - which has earned a record $271.2 million in 12 days - has restored balance to the Force by reviving public interest in a waning franchise. Capitalizing on the momentum, Ross's flurry of summer performances across the United States culminates in a three-month engagement at Lamb's Theater in New York.
"It's a homage," says Ross, but he quickly adds that he pokes fun at the space opera, too. "I can sometimes make small commentary or I can simply just do an impression. If you capitalize on somebody's idiosyncrasy and you heighten it - just slightly - it makes for a sort of mockery, but at the same time I like to have a tone of respect."
Last week, Ross was invited to talk and perform on The Late, Late Show on CBS. He's been interviewed for forthcoming issues of Esquire and Spin magazines and his off-Broadway debut in August has been heralded in a full-page ad in The New York Times. But his CliffsNotes version of "Star Wars" hasn't been an overnight success.
Ross spent three years - longer than Han Solo was frozen in carbonite - touring fringe festivals and small towns and cities such as Dubuque, Iowa. When Ross reached Chicago in 2003, he performed his high-energy shtick on a stage the size of a kitchen table, much to the amazement of audience member Kathy van Beuningen. "He runs around the stage, he rolls around the stage, he jumps around the stage," says van Beuningen, who has now seen the show 35 times. "He's always moving."
Word eventually reached the offices of "Star Wars" creator George Lucas. That led to an invitation from Lucasfilm to appear at the 2004 San Diego Comic-Con, the mecca of science-fiction conventions.
When Ross finished performing, his elbow- and kneepads thoroughly scuffed and black clothes drenched in sweat, the 3,000 sci-fi fans in the audience stood up and cheered like braying Wookiees.
Ross hasn't looked back since.
Inspiration for the show began a long time ago, in a living room far, far away. Ross, a native of Victoria, British Columbia, frittered away his childhood by watching a videotape of "Star Wars" more than 400 times.
"By the time I was 11 or 12, I had watched it that many times," he says, "but I've definitely tried to make something positive out of it."
The repeat viewings (current tally: 474) paid off. Ross, a professional actor who had spent years working with theater groups across Canada, knew how to mimic all the voices in "Star Wars" - as well as the fluorescent hum of a lightsaber - when he set about adapting the trilogy for stage. Ross and director T.J. Dawe then devised ways to physically represent each character so that the audience knows who they're watching at any moment. At times, Ross seems to fully embody the roles he's playing; at other times, he relies on a simple gesture as a shorthand. Leia's infamous bun hairstyle, for example, is represented by hands cupped around the ears. The actor isn't afraid to editorialize, either - Obi Wan's nose does a Pinocchio every time he talks about how Luke's father died.
"The closer you sit the better, " writes Joshua Griffin co-owner of TheForce.net, a popular "Star Wars" fan site, in an e-mail. "All fans will appreciate it, and those most dedicated to the saga will note every nuance he manages to capture onstage."
Ross believes he has also succeeded in distilling "Star Wars" to its essence: the fall and rise of Darth Vader.
"The redemption [of Vader] is interesting because it comes in the form of these children, a new generation that take the mistakes of their father and teach their father the way," he says. "They have long-term faith that he will do the right thing, and he does, in the end."
At some point in the future, Ross will embark on a stage production of the recent "Star Wars" prequels. For now he's busy enough with a sideline production of - you'd better believe it - "The One-Man Lord of the Rings," a 60-minute show that has elicited accolades from "Rings" actor Ian McKellen.
Ross claims that he's not on a crusade to establish a new stage genre but he does relish the opportunity to use the medium of theater to put a different spin on familiar tales. "It's neat to be able to try to bring something new to the stage," he says. "It is an absolute thrill to take my love of something like this and commune with other fans."
• See www.onemanstarwars.com for information on tour dates.