Friday, May 21, 2010

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity

Photo/Joan Marcus

To many people, "professional wrestling" is a meaningless pit of stereotypes and aggression, a modern-day combination of the comfortable catharsis of both Greek drama and the Coliseum. It's a black-and-white entertainment, full of "faces" or "heels." (On the darker flip-side, there's drugs and corruption, though those elements of The Wrestler aren't found in this show's peppier darkness.) Those generalities are what makes Kristoffer Diaz's Pulitzer-nominated play, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity so effective: he uses wrestling's lack of nuance as a metaphor for America's lack of nuance: the one condemns the other. In other words, it uses a reductive storytelling sport to expand upon certain realities of life--particularly, for the stage, emphasizing on the sorts of characters who rarely get to tell their stories. It doesn't always work, and sometimes the conventions of his plot device upstage or overshadow the message, but it's a captivating trick.

At the heart of things lie Macedonio Guerra (Desmin Borges, channeling Lin-Manuel Miranda) and Vigneshwar Paduar (Usman Ally). The former, known as "Mace," is a hard-working, talented wrestler, but as he explains in the play's crisp narrative tone, the best wrestlers are the ones who get paid to lose and make the other guy look good. (They're called "jobbers.") Mace doesn't care much for the plastic superstars (as a child, he preferred the bendable action figures, not the pre-posed ones, the ones you couldn't really play with), but he loves the sport--especially its lucha libre roots, and so he's content to wear his mask and get power-bombed, even if it's by someone as moronically celebrated as Chad Deity (Terence Archie), the undefeated champion. This changes, though, when he meets the smooth-talking, charismatic Paduar; he senses an opportunity to write a new sort of story in the ring, to introduce the hustle of the Brooklyn streets--real-life swagger--to the stage. Instead, the boss of THE Wrestling, Everett K. Olson (Michael T. Weiss), goes with the simpler, easier-to-sell-to-America story: Paduar will be The Fundamentalist, he'll use the "Camel Clutch" finisher (later changed to the superkick, although it's called the "Sleeper Cell"), and Guerra will be his crazy Cuban-Mexican manager, Che Chavez Castro. They'll fight people like Joe Jabroni, Billy Heartland, and Old Glory (a professional Christian Litke)--people much like those trotted out on a campaign trail, only in tights.

But what else do you expect from a man who can't pronounce the names of his "help"? That's the larger point Diaz is making: how can we expect America to see Indians as basketball-playing street hustlers if they're only ever depicted as terrorists of some kind? If the Mexican is always lazy or an illegal immigrant, then of course you'll hate him. This point is well-reflected in the easily recognizable signs and signifiers of Brian Sidney Bembridge's pop-cultural explosion of a set (larger-than-life images from iconic movies are recessed into the back wall; an neon orange and purple wrestling ring takes up center-stage) and of Christine Pascual's hilariously pointed costumes (turbans, sombreros, American flags). Thanks to Peter Nigrini's projections, we even get the high-octane entrance videos that, once again, make it easy for the audience to not have to think. It's evident that Director Edward Torres knows what he's doing, especially in the way he involves the audience (don't worry) in the action, getting the adrenaline pumping both on stage and off.

However, Diaz's necessarily over-the-top writing gets away from him, and the lack of nuance in his "evil" characters is a cheap trick, considering what he's denouncing. Olson is a vicious snake-oil salesman--at one point, he calls for a mafia-style beat-down--and proud of it. Chad Deity shows hints of his hard-knock rise to the championship, but in general, his arrogant, third-person attitude makes it seem as if he's just another callous businessman. Stereotypes about these sorts of improperly celebrated capitalists are a dime a dozen, and while it's not really their story, it actually makes the final line of the play much less effective. Along those lines, though Ally has some moments of perfectly indignant anger, his acting is a little halting, to the point that it makes you wonder what Guerra sees in V.P. If it weren't for Borges so solidly anchoring the show and pinning every point to the ground, the show might squirm away from them.

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity brings a lot of new things to the stage--especially to Second Stage--and that alone excuses the flaws it exhibits. But like In The Heights, its freshness is used as an excuse for much of its sloppiness (and repetition); you'll be glad you went, but you won't want to buy the merchandise.