|A short time ago, in a galaxy ...
Three 'Star Wars' films reenacted in just 30 minutes? That's the offbeat accomplishment of a writer and his pals.
By Hugh Hart, Special to The Times Nearly every summer since 1996, one of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe's hottest shows has been performed by a group of California college students who run, leap, slide and make bang-bang sounds as they race around the stage acting like 7-year-olds playing dress-up.
One distinction: 7-year-olds probably have better props.
But the USC-based troupe gets to spit out world-famous dialogue, since all of the lines for its whiz-bang romp, "Star Wars Trilogy in 30 Minutes," have been lifted verbatim from three of the most popular films on the planet: "Star Wars," "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi."
"Star Wars Trilogy in 30 Minutes," which had its first public stateside performance Friday at the Coronet Theatre Upstairs, is a kick to perform, with or without packed houses, says creator-director Patrick T. Gorman.
"The audience is a blessing," he says. "But we have so much fun pretending that we're kids again, shooting at each other and playing good guys and bad guys, that the reception we get is almost secondary."
During a recent run-through, the actors indeed seem eager to transform themselves into the space saga's fantastical characters. Rummaging through a cardboard box full of bric-a-brac, Michael Cornacchia, who plays Jabba the Hutt, picks out a stuffed animal. When he wags the toy threateningly during a tense scene, this worn plush elephant comes to life as Jabba's fearsome henchman. A couple of Wiffle bats suffice as laser swords. And a folding chair near the stage isn't just for sitting. By placing it over his head, James Snyder, as Luke Skywalker, turns the chair into the cockpit of his trusty X-Wing Fighter.
Gorman, 30, got the idea for his dime-store "Star Wars" from Tom Stoppard, of all people. The formidably highbrow English playwright had authored "The 15 Minute Hamlet," and Gorman was taken with the concept. "I was a big fan of Stoppard's and mounted a production of 'The 15 Minute Hamlet' back in Nebraska," Gorman says. In 1995, while working on his master's of fine arts in writing at USC, he says, "I took a class where you could mount your own show. I wanted to do something visually based that was also connected to something very dear to me as a child, so I thought it would be fun to do all three 'Star Wars' films -- there were only three at the time -- in 30 minutes, just as Stoppard did with 'Hamlet.' "
To squeeze the movies' cumulative seven-hour running time down to half an hour, Gorman condensed action sequences and sped up the crazed relationship arc transpiring among Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Darth Vader.
"Outside the whole mythic structure, what you have in 'Star Wars' is just about the most dysfunctional outer-space family ever," he says. "In the first episode, the brother actually wants his own sister [romantically], plus the person trying to kill them both is their father, who tortures the daughter, blows up her planet and later chops his son's hand off. For people who are not as deeply entrenched in the films, the play has a soap opera-like feel to it."
When it came time to cast the first "30 Minutes" production, Gorman gave himself the role of a lifetime. He would finally get to portray his childhood hero, Han Solo, in front of paying customers. Then Gorman's professional judgment kicked in. "I was a little too chunky, and a little too balding and very uncool, and that wouldn't have worked for the character," Gorman says. Instead, Gorman played Yoda -- in kneepads. "30 Minutes" producer Steve Josephson, who has since inherited the role, kneels when he plays the height-challenged sage. He also plays R2D2. As the robot, Josephson walks stiffly and carries a trash basket crowned by an inverted stainless-steel salad bowl.
What does George Lucas think about all this? And why would the fiercely protective auteur authorize a campy Cliffs Notes version of his intellectual property? As luck would have it, Gorman's professor John Blankenchip taught a directing class that Lucas took in the late '60s. Blankenchip and his colleague Ken Miura, another of Lucas' USC mentors, approached their former student, explaining that the piece would serve as a fundraiser for Festival Theatre USC-USA, a program that gives students here a chance to take part in the Edinburgh Festival.
Lucas gave the green light. But it wasn't until last August that Lucas actually saw "30 Minutes" for himself. A nervous Gorman and his colleagues drove north to Skywalker Ranch in Northern California for a command performance in front of the entire LucasFilm staff.
They were a hit, Wiffle bats and all.
"I was quite impressed that they were able to find a way to make 'Star Wars' faster and more intense," says Lucas, speaking from his Marin County headquarters. "I'm always happy that 'Star Wars' continues to be a source of creative inspiration, and I hope to see them perform again after Episode 3 comes out, when they can do all six 'Star Wars' in 60 minutes."
Gorman is game. "Our producer's daughter is a dead ringer for Natalie Portman, so we're already set for that role. As long as Lucas keeps making the films, we'll keep trying to make them shorter."
What: "Star Wars Trilogy in 30 Minutes"
When: Fridays and Saturdays at 10:30 p.m.
Where: Coronet Theatre, 366 N. La Cienega. Blvd., L.A.
Ends: Nov. 23
Contact: (310) 657-7377