At first consideration, there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly Chekhovian about Mario, the iconic red capped plumber whose mustachioed visage has been imprinted on the mind of every casual gamer since the days of the arcade parlor. But ah, what about the endless boredom of Princess Peach and her sisters, forever incarcerated by Bowser, forever saved by Mario, forever destined to repeat the same cycle of catch and release, until time immemorial? What about the bitter resentment of Luigi, doomed to exist in his brother’s shadow, never achieving fame or notoriety in his own right? What of the interminable wanderings of King Boo, destined to float throughout his ruined mansion for all eternity, always hungry, never satiated? Truly, all that’s missing is a gun and a three hour run time and you’ve got a 64-bit Uncle Vanya.
Such is the high concept cross over envisioned by Playwright Seamus Sullivan, whose off-beat Brother Mario is currently having its wonderfully wacky world premiere at Flying V Theatre in Bethesda.
Directed by Paul Reisman, Brother Mario walks a fine line between outrageous Mario parody and earnest Chekhov imitation. What results is a sometimes uncertain combination of tongue-in-cheek hilarity (e.g. Mario casually leaping over papier mache fireballs) and genuine heartfelt poignancy, as the denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom struggle to overcome their personal struggles to achieve a lasting sense of meaning.
The similarity between Sullivan’s language and Chekhov’s is uncanny. At first, the spot-on imitation of Chekhov’s middle-class ennui is funny, but as the play goes on it starts to remind you why Chekhov’s plays are classics in the first place. The dialogue is quietly absorbing, like observing a tense domestic scene through a hole in the wall. After a while, you begin to forget that the characters are wearing polyester crowns and Disney princess gowns. All that matters is the humanity underneath.
It is to the great credit of the both the cast and Director Paul Resiman that this humanity is played (for the most part) real, not video game fake. Mario (Lee Liebeskind) is here a genuinely conflicted individual, disillusioned with his career as perpetual Peach rescuer and far more interested in his lifelong dream of founding (what else?) his own plumbing business. Liebeskind, who remarkably resembles what you would expect a human version of Mario to look like, is a measured and engaging presence on stage. His down-to-earth quality contrasts with Luigi (Grant Cloyd), who presents a great contrast as a haughty and insecure brother.
Then there are the three sisters, princesses Peach (Amber Gibson), Daisy (Natalie Boland), and Rosalina (Megan Reichelt). Peach and Mario are engaged, and Peach loves Mario, but he isn’t as sure he loves her. He is attracted to Daisy, who loves Mario, but also loves her sister. Luigi is devoted to Daisy and wants to marry her, but she spurns his love in favor of Mario. As if all this family drama isn’t enough, Peach, Mario, and Bowser (Ryan Tumulty) are engaged in some Wag the Dog political intrigue whereby the regular kidnapping of Peach is a sham designed to spark nationalist unity throughout the Mushroom Kingdom. In fact, far from the fire breathing bully we are led to believe he is, Bowser here is a Francophone gentleman with impeccable manners.
As Peach, Amber Gibson is beauty queen bright over top an earnest desire to do what is best for her kingdom. Natalie Boland, as Daisy, is the epitome of Chekhovian yearning, while Megan Reichelt, as Rosalina, is the epitome of Chekhovian tragedy, a victim of radiation poisoning from the very baby Stars she helped nurture into existence. As Bowser, Ryan Tumulty is exquisite, with his deep bass baritone voice booming eloquently from atop impossibly tall platform shoes.
A particular delight is JonJon Johnson as King Boo. From inside a wonderful snowball shaped costume, Johnson moans and croons as an effete, existential spectre whose only joy left in life is his spooky paintings, which in time, he says, will fade as well.
The set design, four different changing iterations of various Mario-based virtual worlds, was creatively manifested through Brian Gillick’s directive influence and accurately reflects the familiar visual components of Mario’s video game environments. The lighting design, by Kristin A. Thompson, likewise evoked the game. At one point, haze and laser lights combine to evoke a Rainbow Row “duel” between Mario and Luigi. Lynly Saunders is responsible for the wonderful costumes, and Kenny Neal provides sound and music greatly influenced by the bee-boop-boop Mario sound effects.
Brother Mario is a hilarious and interesting exercise in dramatic genre smashing. Make sure you move fast to see this show – just exercise a bit more caution than your reckless friends on Mario Kart.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, including a 10-minute intermission.