Professional wrestling and modern politics make natural, if often disgusting, bedfellows.
Both rely on stereotypes of good and evil, on the demonizing of opponents, on impulsive emotional attachments made by audiences who are happy to give their brains a rest. So it’s painfully amusing to see them linked in “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.” Kristoffer Diaz’ Pulitzer-finalist play is about the way image-makers suppress some stories, support others and generally cloud our minds with blather about the universal American Dream.
Chad Deity, the “world” champion of the THE wrestling circuit, prances into view at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre with a gold belt as wide as the Mississippi River, fistfuls of paper money he tosses to the crowd and a winner’s invincible grin. (He’s a credible hero: Pro wrestling has often been ahead of America racially, with blacks tending to be good guys as early as the 1960s.)
Chad (J.R. Jones) has no skill in the ring. So promoter Everett Olson (Robert Paolino) hires men such as Macedonio Guerra, a Puerto Rican grappler with no fan following (Michael Smallwood), literally to take the fall for crude Chad.
Mace doesn’t mind: At least he’s part of a craft he’s admired since boyhood. But when he introduces an Indian pal, Vineshwar Paduar (Denny Valentin), to the sport, Olson has a brilliant idea: The new guy can be presented as a terrorist and become the repository of fan hatred. Mace, now billed as America-baiting revolutionary Che Chavez Castro, will be his loathsome manager. (This, too, makes sense: Villains have been Germans, Russians or whomever Americans collectively feared or despised.)
If you’ve ever enjoyed professional wrestling, you’ll get more out of this play if you root for the presumed heroes and hoot at the “villains.” (And take this from someone who briefly wrote about pro wrestling for a newspaper: The ring action is faked well enough to look good from just a few feet away.)
Yet Diaz wants to make at least two serious points.
First, when we assign identities to people we don’t know or understand – especially identities that encourage us to condemn them – we make ourselves corrupt and miss the stories they have to tell us. Mace and Vineshwar come from cultures mainstream Americans often mock or dismiss, and this rankles them.
Second, an artist has to be heard. Mace realizes he’s not writing symphonies or novels: He’s participating in a physical activity whose outcome is, as he notes, as inviolable as ballet. But this is his art form, humble as it is; he dreams of being a champion one day, even if he knows the result is dishonest.
The four leads all play at full-out intensity but varying and appropriate levels of sound.
Paolino roars contempt for anything but the dollar. Jones speaks of himself with loud, lordly assurance in the third person. (Well, he’s a Deity.) Smallwood commands attention with a feral intelligence and fewer decibels. Valentin holds our interest with quiet patter as Vineshwar or a silent stare as “The Fundamentalist.”
The action takes place within a wrestling ring or around its apron. (Call this “theater in the square.”) But director Michael Simmons exploits all of the room; actors break the fourth wall and talk to us frequently, sometimes asking questions.
Simmons has told his cast to go BIG, which can be intimidating in a small space if you like to pretend that performers can’t see you. But the essence of pro wrestling fandom is the ability to cheer, jeer, speak to or even spit on icons a few feet away. (Don’t spit on anyone here, though.) What works in the “real” world of wrestling works in the theater, too.