‘Super Mario Bros.’ give Chicago 1Up

By Luke Wilusz

Mario, Luigi and an array of their familiar friends and foes from the Mushroom Kingdom recently took the stage in Chicago, although in a decidedly different form than most would recognize. For one thing, everyone was distinctly more female than usual. For another, most of them ended up nearly naked by the end of the show.

“Boobs and Goombas: A Super Mario Burlesque,” features an all-female cast as Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, Toad and other “Super Mario” mainstays dancing, stripping and teasing the audience against the backdrop of levels and music from the games. The show—one of a growing number of geeky burlesque revues nationwide—was written and directed by Chicago burlesque veteran MsPixy. The show runs every Friday and Saturday in October at 11 p.m. at Gorilla Tango Theatre, 1919 N. Milwaukee Ave.

MsPixy, a founding member of the Belmont Burlesque Revue, said the plot revolves around the frustration of never getting rewarded for rescuing the princess in the “Super Mario Bros.” games.

“The plot is Mario and Luigi have been so long chasing the princess without ever catching her and having their way with her they’ve lost their minds,” MsPixy said. “And everything they see has started to look like a beautiful woman, including each other, which explains the fact it’s an all-female cast.”

MsPixy met with producer Kelly Williams to brainstorm ideas for a burlesque show Gorilla Tango Theatre wanted to produce when the idea for “Boobs and Goombas” hit her. She said adapting the familiar characters and themes into a burlesque performance was easier than she expected.

“I took the top, say, 10 things that pop to mind when I think of ‘Super Mario Bros.,’ like the Goombas and the Koopa Troopas and the clouds and the different types of levels, and I made them into a list,” MsPixy said. “Then I took classic burlesque concepts like fan dance, balloon dance—there’s a turtle number that’s kind of hard to describe, but it’s kind of a twist on a veil dance … and I just kind of saw how they’d naturally fit with the main ideas we’d brainstormed from ‘Super Mario.’”

While the idea of video game characters performing stripteases may seem bizarre, this is far from the first time burlesque collided with the world of geek culture. Nerdy burlesque shows are becoming quite the popular trend nationwide.

One such show, “Nerdlesque,” was produced by the New Millennium Theatre Company and performed by local burlesque troupe The Flaming Dames from March through May. The show featured characters from comic books to “Star Wars” and nearly everything in between.

“We covered the gamut from comic books to sci-fi, to kind of hip culture, to ‘Harry Potter,’” said Chad Wise, artistic director for the New Millennium Theatre Company. “We had Daphne and Velma from ‘Scooby Doo’ in a number with Buffy and Faith from ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.’ We didn’t have any ‘Star Trek,’ that’s the one big thing we didn’t address, but I think we covered everything else in there.”

Wise said the rise of comic books, video games and other staples of geek culture into mainstream pop culture is a big reason for the recent increase in geeky burlesque shows. He said it’s a popular theme in the burlesque world at the moment, but performers need to approach the topic wholeheartedly rather than trying to cash in on a fad to avoid angering or alienating audiences.

“Nerds are very discerning,” Wise said. “They’re going to know from seeing a show whether it’s, ‘OK, let’s just do our normal burlesque dances but do [them] in a Princess Leia costume.’ Nerds are going to know that, versus someone [who] really gets in there and makes it for them because of the love of the genre.”

According to MsPixy, that kind ofauthentic enthusiasm isn’t difficult for most burlesque performers to muster.

“We like nerds,” she said. “There seems to be kind of a direct relationship between burlesque dancers and nerds. We seem to get along well. Many of us dancers are nerds at heart, and many of us date or are married to an endless string of nerds.”

Wise said he doesn’t see this trend fading soon.

“It’s going to last as long as there’s fodder … I think in L.A., the same group that does the ‘Star Wars’ one [has] done a ‘Girls of Video Gaming’ night; they’ve done comic book superheroes, too. As long as there’s material, I think people will still be doing it until it’s saturated, or until these groups totally alienate their audience by doing too much of it, I think it’ll keep going strong.”

Producer Kelly Williams said “Boobs and Goombas” has consistently sold out since the beginning of its run and would advise people to buy tickets well in advance. She also said Gorilla Tango Theatre plans to extend the show through November and December, although set dates are not yet available.

According to Williams, audiences for the performances have been surprisingly varied compared to what she expected to see for a burlesque show.

“The bulk of the people are couples, young couples,” Williams said. “Maybe 50 years ago the idea of seeing somebody’s boobs with pasties on was kind of shocking, but now we’re just so inundated with those kinds of images everywhere—you look at network TV and you see stuff  which is more risque than this. I think, really, what it is, is that sexuality is becoming more mainstream, and this is not a dirty thing. It’s more of a lighthearted, quirky thing.”

“Boobs and Goombas” runs Fridays and Saturdays at 11 p.m. at Gorilla Tango Theatre, 1919 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets are $15 and available at GorillaTango.com or by phone at (773) 598-4549. More information on the show’s extension will be posted on GorillaTango.com.