Super Mario’s many faces

Esther N MCarthy goes eye-to-eye with Mario Rosenstock andemerges amazed at his ability to instantly morphy into different personas. Genuinely.

Mario Rosenstock begins his new tour in Cork, the city that has given the impressionist some of his best characters.

Remember the Cyclops fella in the X-Men movies? The mutant who has to wear a special visor to protect mere mortals from the searing red lasers spurting from his eyeballs?

That’s what it feels like sitting down one-on-one with comedian, actor and impressionist Mario Rosenstock, like you need a shield to protect you from the intense burning beam of his full attention.

That and the fact that his eyes really do look like Miriam O’Callaghan’s, one of his favourite characters to inhabit. Genuinely.

Mario’s irises kinda float in the middle of the eyeballs instead of lower down like most people’s, giving the impression of slightly startled innocence plus, they’re super big and a rather lovely shade of blue and if you lashed on a bit of Maybelline mascara, red lippy, a blonde wig and a head tilt, Miriam’s own mam would be convinced.

Mia Farrow told him he had incredible eyes when he worked with her on the 1998 movie Miracle at Midnight. He played a psychotic baby-faced Nazi called ... wait for it... Major Langer.

It’s testament to how very funny Rosenstock is and how very determined he is to get his points across that this doesn’t get full on lolz in our chat. But back to
Miriam.

“Miriam is always an interesting one for me,” says Mario. “She’s kinda masculine, in that she’s commanding, she six foot tall, she’s in control and it’s the juxtaposition of me as a man, playing Miriam and being
able to...”

With a shift of his neck and a tweak in posture, he starts talking as the Primetime presenter. “I can speak like her as well, I can flirt, (he tosses imaginary hair) I can do the eyes, (he looks at me from under his lashes, and I swear to God, I nearly asked him if I could buy him a drink) I can listen (he does a sympathetic side nod with eyebrows askew and suddenly, I feel like I can tell him anything, like I don’t have any money to buy him that drink).”

To be perfectly honest, it’s rather disconcerting to watch him slip into the skins of Irish celebrities before my eyes.

It all seems rather effortless to the funny man who first hit our scenes as Glenroe’s Dr David Hanlon in the early 1990s and then charged the airwaves via the Gift Grub sketches on the Ian Dempsey show in 1999.

He’s made the successful transition to TV, first with RTÉ and now with TV3. He made headlines in August for calling the national broadcaster “classless” after they didn’t renew his top-rated sketch show.

“I really didn’t mean it to as hurtful as that,” says Mario. “I just thought it was poor form, they just need to improve their communications.”

The father-of-two says RTÉ would leave it until the last minute to let him know if they were making another series and weren’t in the habit of returning his calls. “I made three series, I loved working for them and if they had an interesting project I’d work with them again.”

But the live stage shows are what it’s all about and Mario’s in town to talk about his 2018 tour, In Your Face, premiering in Cork on April 12. “I’m addicted to doing it.

Radio is more about the brain, coming up with the idea and executing it but you can’t hear anyone laugh. In the live shows, it’s the extra kinetic energy of feeling laughter, watching the whites of people’s eyes, seeing people bending over and shoulders rattle. This is my pay off, you suck up the laughter.”

The performer in him, one feels, thrives on the reaction, the affirmation that yes, he is funny. Be it thousands in a packed venue or just party of one upstairs in the Cork Opera house on a damp Tuesday, he gives it his all.

But it seems to invigorate, rather than exhaust him. He gets more animated and energised as the interview goes on. Being on stage, morphing into other people, it’s no problem, he tells me.

“It’s a magical world and I’m very good at falling into character. It’s not a big leap, my brain goes over ‘there’, very simply, like falling off a cliff. I love that place.”

There’s also an interactive side of the show, so beware anyone who’s rocking up in April, you could be part of the entertainment. But how can our intrepid host tell who’ll make the best panel for his Vincent Browne sketch or the funniest Roses for Daithí to interview?

“There’s a special, mystical thing, picking someone from the audience that’s the right one... and what is the right one?”

Mario is very excited about this concept and you see him mulling it over, his brain a microsecond ahead of his mouth.

“The most confident one isn’t the one, you don’t want them hogging the limelight.” I ponder what kind of superhuman ringer could possibly hope to outshine this fella, when he adds, “People don’t feel jeopardy for them.” Fair point, there’s no Irish audience who’d be rooting for a one full sure of themselves.

“Second, you don’t want someone who looks like a plant, too smooth.” I stop mid slide of my card across the table and turn my wink into a eye rub. Dammit, I’d make a great plant, I know most of the material now anyway and I’m, like, totally free on April 12.

“Three, you don’t want someone who’s so catatonically nervous that they don’t do anything at all. So you go in using all your lupine senses, you’re Wolfman, you’re smelling people, your pupils are dilated, your senses are heightened, you’re
hunting a prey.”

He sits back, he’s delighted with that, but to be honest it’s kinda screwing up my Cyclops metaphor, him pushing this Wolverine vibe so I’m going to move him on there fairly lively.

But there’s no moving Mario where he doesn’t want to go.

“I remember one fella in Cork and I needed him to come up on stage and I was really patronising him as Gay Byrne.” Here Mario slides into Gaybo. His pulls his top lip over his teeth, his nose goes up in the air, and he rubs his hands together. “Great boy! Well done! He’s an accountant, he’s fantastic with the numbers!”

He’s back as Mario as he continues the story: “And he says, ‘Gay, would you ever f*ck off, will ya?’

“And the crowd LOVED it because it was real and your man wasn’t laughing. So you have to have an ability to embrace whatever happens.”

“Cork people seem to get it,” he says. “They love hammering the politicians. It’s a deeply political city, and tribal, that’s why they love the pisstake.”

It also helps that some of Mario’s most memorable sketches are thanks to Cork characters. Ronan O’Gara, George Hook, Eddie Hobbs, Michéal Martin, and my all time favourite, Roy Keane.

Back in the last century I went off to Australia. My boyfriend sent me over cassette recordings of Gift Grub. Listening to Mario doing Radio Roy in the mornings was one of the things I missed most from home.

And now here I am, 18 years later, getting to see the magic happen before my eyes. As Roy would say, all credit to Mario, he’s a total legend, not a major langer at all.

  • In Your Face will premiere at the Cork Opera House in April 12-14 with a string of weekend shows all around the country, culminating at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin in May.


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