Body Slam Poetry

6. September, 2012 Theater No comments

It’s not often that you see a guy in a Mexican wrestling mask just sitting in the audience at the theater, but then, it’s not every day that you see a play about professional wrestling. Everyone knows that wrestling is just as scripted as your average play, with the characters, twists, and outcomes all determined in advance,  but I don’t know how much crossover there really is between the audiences of the ring and those of the stage.

Rod Gnapp and Tony Sancho in The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity. Photo by David Allen.

Kristoffer Diaz’s play The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is steeped in the glitzy fantasy world of professional wrestling, but it’s definitely geared more for the hifalutin theater crowd. It’s told primarily in lushly poetic, extended monologues sprinkled with dialogue like pepper on a steak.

The protagonist and primary narrator isn’t the titular Chad Deity, the musclebound designated champ to whom everyone has to lose. Instead it’s the compact and sensitive Macedonio “The Mace” Guerra, a wrestler who can actually wrestle well, which doesn’t mean that he gets the glory and big bucks. Quite the opposite. His job is to make the other guy look good, to do flips and falls that look like he’s being hurled around the stage. He’s the guy who everyone thinks sucks because he’s so good at making Chad Deity look unstoppable, even though Chad couldn’t wrestle his way out of a paper bag in a real match, if such a thing even existed.

Dave Maier, the fight director for the show, knows a lot about that kind of thing, so it makes sense that he plays the various other colorful wrestlers who are brought into the ring to be trounced: the straightjacketed and head-caged Bad Guy, talkative Southerner Billy Heartland, and soldier boy Old Glory. Maier’s in the ring as Billy Heartland before the show, coaching the audience on all the character-specific cheers they’ll be expected to shout out as diehard wrestling fans. He also calls out a couple of audience members to show how it’s done—conveniently picking other actors in the audience the night I saw it who’d be game to play along.

The curious thing is, after Billy’s got the crowd amped for the show, there’s hardly any wrestling in the first act, and not a whole lot of it in the show in general. Instead, it’s devoted to Mace’s inner musings: his love for the art of wrestling and the stories it can tell; his childhood as a rapt fan and his preference for the action figures (he hates that term, insisting they’re “wrestling guys”) of lesser-known wrestlers that could actually move, not just pose; and always, his frustration with the overt racism of the characters that anyone brown-skinned is assigned to play, and with the lack of credit and compensation he gets for doing all the work. The preshow patter is entertaining, and so is the play, but there’s a real dissonance in tone between them.

The long stretches of monologue could be wearying were it not for the florid poetry of the language and the characters’ idiosyncratic way of speaking. Mace never says “my brothers” when talking about his family, for instance, always “my brother and my brother.” His boss describes crowd confusion saying “and it scares the fucking fuck out of their fucking fuck fucks.” Tony Sancho plays Mace with an eloquent earnestness and irrepressible physical energy that belie his self-image of being inarticulate and uncharismatic.

Aurora Theatre Company’s Bay Area premiere production is dazzling, sharply staged by Jon Tracy. Nina Ball’s set places a small wrestling ring center stage, with an elaborate jumble of steps winding every which way behind it. Maggie Whitaker’s deliberately cheesy and skimpy heroic and villainous getups for the wrestlers are hilarious. Jim Gross’s over-the-top videos show the wrestlers posing with identical twin bikini babes (both played by Elizabeth Cadd) or superimposed into historical paintings and photographs—the good guy with Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, the bad guy with Stalin and Darth Vader. Sound designer Cliff Caruthers accompanies these elaborate entrances with swelling superheroic music, and Kurt Landisman’s lighting creates effective illusions like the swirling shadow of a helicopter overhead when Old Glory climbs down on a rope from above.

The always terrific Rod Gnapp is well in his element as Everett K. “EKO” Olson, the oily founder and impresario of THE Wrestling. The breezy way he dismisses people’s ideas or appropriates them as his own if they seem to work, the unrepentant offhandedness of his racist remarks, and the unlikely grace with which he lies on a ring rope as if it’s a hammock make him a deliciously infuriating antagonist. Beethovan Oden exudes flashy magnetism and swagger as beefy Chad Deity, the overweeningly egomaniacal champ who refers to himself in the third person and dispenses unsolicited advice as if it were royal decrees.

Nasser Khan is charming and funny as Vigneshwar Paduar, “VP,” a young Indian-American guy who talks like a Chicano hip-hop kid, but his silver-tongued charisma and rap prowess are things we largely have to take on faith, because what makes him more of a natural star than Mace isn’t necessarily in evidence. Still, Mace spots him as just what the ring needs, and he quickly becomes an up-and-coming star, despite having no idea how to even pretend to wrestle.

Of course Olson casts the Indian Hindu hip-hop kid as the Fundamentalist, an America-hating Osama bin Laden clone (he was going to call his secret “finisher” move “the Koran Kaballah Kick” until Chad Deity pointed out the unfortunate initials), and makes our Puerto Rican protagonist his sidekick in the Axis of Enemy Combatants, the sombreroed Mexican revolutionary Che Chavez Castro. Despite the ridiculous racism of the stereotypes they’re compelled to embody, the guys play the roles to the hilt, transfixing the audience with the disdain of their silent scowls.

The pace picks up a bit in the second act as we actually get a glimpse of some of the action and characters in the ring. When Mace finally gets everything off his chest and lets loose about all the things he’s never complained about till now, we don’t hear it, we only hear about it. “I mention all of it,” he tells us. It flies in the face of the “show, don’t tell” principle, but that’s fine because we’ve been hearing and witnessing those private grievances for two hours already.

If Chad Deity feels a bit hollow at the end, that’s because for all that Macedonio rhapsodizes and bellyaches about professional wrestling, it’s ultimately not clear why he still loves it so much. Certainly it goes back to his childhood, still being that starstruck little boy inside, and he makes it clear how much pleasure he takes in his skill and in the way that wrestlers look out for each other’s safety in the ring. But that’s countered by how little he feels his skill is appreciated and compensated by the organization. He certainly doesn’t wish that wrestling was any less scripted—he loves it as an art, not a sport—but he knows all too well that the mythology they’re presenting in the ring is empty and often offensive.

Mace wants the freedom to tell a really good story in the ring, but we never learn what the story he wants to tell is. Diaz may just be leaving that up to our imagination, because whatever he described would never live up to what we imagined the coolest wrestling scenario to be, but leaving that bit of creative heavy lifting up to the viewer feels like a cop-out, a failure of imagination. And what little we’ve seen of the wrestling or heard about it doesn’t give much of a sense that it ever really tells much of a story.

Still, a deep and resonant message would be a lot to ask of a play about professional wrestling. On a moment to moment basis it’s awfully entertaining in the writing, the performance and the production elements. It’s not quite a knockout, but it’s a win.

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity
Through September 30
Aurora Theatre Company
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA

Show #80 of 2012, attended August 31.

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