Appropriately, we begin with hyperbole.
“We decided last year that we were going to choose shows that were impossible,” says Shawn LaCount, artistic director of Company One. “I had been told that ‘Chad Deity’ was impossible in many ways.”
“The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” beginning performances Saturday at the Boston Center for the Arts, is simultaneously an exuberant, even affectionate portrait of professional wrestling and a caustic satire of race, money, and fame in today’s America. And while it’s not actually impossible, the play by Kristoffer Diaz requires an ethnically diverse cast of actors willing and able to perform stage combat that is athletic and sometimes dangerous, even though the bouts are fakey-fake-fake.
“Primarily my collaboration with our wrestling adviser was that he would tell me it was OK when I got very nervous,” says LaCount, who is directing the play. “There’s a scripted moment where one of the wrestlers has to hit the other with a chair over the back, and I said, ‘Brian, how do you do that? In theater we’d figure out a way where you’d miss by an inch and the guy sells it when he falls. What do we do?’
“And he said, ‘Well, you hit the guy with the chair.’ ”
Brian is Brian Phillips, a.k.a., Brian Fury, heavyweight champion of the Chaotic Wrestling circuit and proprietor of the New England Pro Wrestling Academy in North Andover, where Company One’s cast trained and rehearsed. Fury choreographed all the wrestling, including moves like the camel clutch and the powerbomb. The troupe rented a 16-by-16-foot pro wrestling ring for the production.
“We decided to do the piece in three-quarter thrust staging, and even though we have one side that’s not audience, it really feels very much in the round,” LaCount says. “We really aimed to create an arena environment, and our designers have embraced the term ‘flash and trash,’ so there are lots of moving lights and tremendous video design that is much more elaborate than anything we’ve ever done, to capture the world of professional wrestling as you’d see it on television.”
“Chad Deity” premiered in 2009 at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. It was a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist and received the 2011 Obie Award for Best New American Play. Not what you’d expect from a genre that spawned Hulk Hogan and Gorgeous George.
“The most important thing in general is there’s a lot of passion involved,” says Diaz. “People say, ‘I’m not a wrestling fan,’ and I say, ‘You’re not a fan of Danish royalty, either, but you can still watch ‘Hamlet.’ ”
Diaz and LaCount both admit to a youthful obsession with ’80s stars like Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage. A monologue near the beginning of “Chad Deity” —
Both men say they outgrew wrestling fandom in their teens. LaCount didn’t come back until “Chad Deity,” but Diaz couldn’t stay away.
“In the late ’90s, wrestling became super-cool again in a weird way. It was more adult and intense and extreme, and I started following it again,” Diaz says. “I had a friend who asked me, ‘You’re a smart guy, you’re in grad school studying theater, how can you watch that stuff?’ And I had to come up with sort of a justification.
“Wrestling is all the things people say it is, it’s fake and it’s predetermined and tends to play to sort of the lowest common denominator, it’s racist and sexist and homophobic in a lot of ways,” Diaz says. “But there’s still something super-compelling about it and something artistic and occasionally beautiful. So I needed to not justify but reconcile those two different ideas. And whenever I have conflicting ideas like that, it feels like a good time to write a play.”
So he did.
In “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” Macedonio Guerra, a.k.a. Mace, is a professional also-ran on the THE Wrestling circuit (think WWE), with good physical skills but limited charisma. His job is to lose while making THE stars like Chad Deity — or, as the script has it, CHAAAAD DEEEEEITYYYYYYY! — look good. Then Mace meets a young Indian-American kid whose multicultural chutzpah could outshine even Deity, but their plans, hopes, and dreams collide with wrestling’s bottom-line realities.
Racial stereotyping has always been a part of pro wrestling, but the specifics change with time. Champion Chad Deity (Chris Leon) is African-American and enters the ring to thunderous rap. Mace (Ric Engermann) is Puerto Rican, which means he can be cast as a “Mexican terrorist” when necessary. But Vigneshwar Paduar, a.k.a. VP (Jake Athyal), is lanky and athletic, funny and multilingual. Mace thinks VP can bring something new to the game.
But THE wrestling’s kingpin, Everett K. Olson, a.k.a. EKO (Peter Brown), prefers to stick to stereotypes. He thinks VP would make an excellent new villain for Chad Deity to defeat: “What wrestling needs right now is a Muslim fundamentalist!”
Diaz’s satire is cut with a genuine love of the — well, he doesn’t call it a sport.
“This is an art form, something that people who are involved in it take incredibly seriously and devote their lives to, and I think artists understand that it’s a lot closer to dance or improv or stage acting than it is to other competitions,” the playwright says.
For Company One, getting the right performers for the roles was tough, especially as it tries to use Boston actors whenever possible. Casting took a full year, the longest for any Company One show, LaCount says.
“It was very important for a piece about race and class to stay true to that, and I think it was also something the playwright intended, and I was trying to do right by him,” LaCount says.
The piece’s smallest speaking part is The Bad Guy, who has but one word to say. He’s played by New England Pro Wrestling Academy wrestler Mike Webb. “We had I don’t know how many muscle-y white guys from Boston show up [at auditions],” LaCount says. But, based on what he’d learned from Phillips, his wrestling adviser, he knew he needed someone who didn’t just look the part. His Bad Guy had to understand the pro wrestling aesthetic — and, he adds, “for the moves, we needed somebody who was going to keep our fellows safe.”