Charlie Ross does a remarkable impersonation of an Imperial Walker. True, an Imperial Walker doesn’t have much personality, but what makes Ross’ representation so effective is that he’s not merely pretending to amble about like one of the 100-foot-tall armored behemoths from George Lucas’ film The Empire Strikes Back; he’s re-creating the entire opening scene from the Star Wars trilogy’s second film, in which a half dozen of the creature-shaped supertanks attack an outpost of the Rebel Alliance on the ice planet Hoth. It’s a scene that many people of a certain age can play almost frame for frame in their minds — elements of it have embedded themselves in our cultural subconsciousness so deeply that the story of Luke, Han, and Leia’s escape from Hoth is inseparable from the camera shots, wipes, closeups, voiceovers, theme music, and bits of dialogue that Lucas used to tell it.
So when Charlie Ross impersonates an Imperial Walker advancing on the Alliance’s base, he’s actually re-creating all of it — the camera angles, et al. — capturing the iconic essence of the scene in the process. He lumbers across the stage, fists clenched beneath his chin and pistoning out and back just as the twin turrets under the walkers’ heads did. He walks in a half circle, because the audience is viewing the monster from the perspective of the cockpit of Luke’s circling snowspeeder, just as we did in the film. Meanwhile Ross is humming the score and creating the sound effects of blasts from the laser cannons. He represents the snowspeeder with one finger, drawing a circle in the air around his knees and making the sound of the aircraft ripping through the freezing air. “One more pass,” he intones, just as Luke does before detaching the grappler-tipped cable and hogtying the walker’s massive legs with a few more laps around it. Ross slowly collapses to the floor, shoulders gyrating, and finally sounds an explosion as one hand mimes the kablooey we remember as the giant head erupted into a ball of smoke, scorched metal, and stormtrooper chunks.
This is what Charlie Ross does for a living. Clad in black pants and a longsleeved shirt, wearing knee and elbow pads, and without props of any kind, Ross presents Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi in the span of 60 frenetic minutes, relying only on 400-plus viewings of the films, an ultra-limber body, a lot of energy, and a gift for mimicry (his R2-D2 is a showstopper).
His One Man Star Wars Trilogy has taken him from being an unknown actor with a gift for impersonations in Vancouver, B.C., to cross-country tours, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and a sold-out off-Broadway run last fall in New York City. Ross was last in Charleston two years ago, for Theatre 99’s Piccolo Fringe ’04, when he presented One Man Star Wars alongside his equally ambitious One Man Lord of the Rings. Since then, he’s performed his show hundreds of times, for some of the most enthusiastic Star Wars fans in the world, including several thousand at last April’s Celebration III, the official Star Wars fan party for the release of Episode III. Along the way, he also got a lot of attention from the suits at Lucasfilm Ltd. This time around, therefore, Ross is working as a licensed agent of the Star Wars brand, and he’s performing with the blessing of Lucas himself.
“I haven’t stopped since the last time I was in Charleston,” Ross says from his home in Vancouver. “After Charleston I was in Chicago, then there was Celebration III. Then I went to New York for an off-Broadway run for five months. Then I was immediately back into the touring thing. I’ve been traveling to bookings everywhere, just going from town to town.”
Lately, Ross says, he’s been limiting his engagements to One Man Star Wars. “The reason being, they opened a big stage musical of Lord of the Rings in Canada,” he says. “There’s a lot of copyright issues, obviously. So I have to give way to what they’re doing. I’m glad to have had that opportunity for as long as I did. But they want to be the only game in town, which in this case is the world.”
Last August, Ross spent five months in Manhattan bringing his version of Luke Skywalker’s trials to New Yorkers at Lamb’s Theatre on West 44th St., a 400-seat theatre about 200 feet from Times Square.
“There’d been talk of New York when I was last in Charleston, but it was just talk at that time. But my guy in Chicago was very keen on it, and he had a window of opportunity and the money to do it. I was skeptical, but he just made it happen. To put myself in that giant crowd… It was weird to find myself competing with the kind of things you normally only hear on TV, like Spamalot and The Producers, and here they were just down the street from me.”
From Charleston, Ross will continue to tour, with trips to Washington, D.C., and San Diego prepping him for launching his production in the U.K. with an appearance at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August.
“We’re gonna work on that and try to open a door to Europe,” he says. “But who knows how it’ll do there.”
The first Star Wars film, Episode IV, has earned a little over half a billion dollars in rentals overseas since its release in 1977. Somehow, we have a feeling Ross is gonna do just fine.
ONE MAN STAR WARS TRILOGY • Piccolo Spoleto’s Fringe at the American Theater • $15 • May 30, June 7 at 6 p.m.; May 31 at 5 p.m.; June 1, 9 at 9 p.m.; June 2, 4 at 4 p.m.; June 3 at 7 p.m.; June 6 at 8 p.m.; June 10 at 3 p.m. • American Theater, 446 King St. • 554-6060
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