Talk about a play with impact.
In Kristoffer Diaz’s “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,’’ set in the world of professional wrestling and now at Company One in an exhilaratingly sharp production directed by Shawn LaCount, the stage resounds with the thud of bodies being slammed onto it.
But it’s not really pro wrestling that Diaz wants to rough up in this frequently hilarious satire. It’s us.
Us and our paranoia. Us and our addiction to ethnic stereotypes. Us and our celebrity worship, our cheapening of the idea of patriotism, our sorry excuse for mass media, our need to frame the world as a simple matter of heroes vs. villains, our insistence on cramming everyone into culturally assigned boxes, and our reflexive commodification of every form of expression, even when it’s an individual voice loudly saying “No’’ to the very system trying to make a buck off him.
If that makes “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity’’ sound didactic, rest assured that LaCount, his terrific cast, and his imaginative design team plunge zestfully into the task of presenting the spectacle of wrestling in all its cartoony gaudiness, macho absurdity, and, yes, adrenaline charge.
Stage fights are often embarrassingly obvious in their artificiality. Not these. You’ll flinch when these characters deliver realistic-looking kicks to the face or use a chair to bash another with full force. Members of the cast put themselves on the line physically to a degree that theater seldom demands. When these performers go down, they go down HARD.
Yet Diaz’s play, which won the 2011 Obie Award for best new American play and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is shot through with a palpable affection for wrestling. One character is clearly speaking for the playwright when he tells the audience they should not “dismiss my art form on the basis of it being predetermined unless you’re ready to dismiss ballet for the swan already knowing it’s gonna end up dead.’’
The speaker is a Puerto Rican wrestler named Macedonio Guerra, nicknamed Mace, who is beautifully played by Ricardo Engermann with a blend of wised-up savvy, faltering idealism, and rueful self-awareness. It is through his eyes that we see the slam-bang events of “Chad Deity,’’ which play out on a stage that has been ingeniously designed by Jason Ries, with video screens by Olivia Sebesky, to resemble the TV-ready “squared circle’’ of wrestling.
Both narrator and commentator, Mace is under no illusions about the line of work he is in, but he nonetheless loves this pseudo-sport for the joy it brought him as a kid growing up in the Bronx, when he would watch wrestling on TV and then use action figures to concoct “epic story lines.’’
Now, though, the prosaic reality is that he is just a ham-and-egger, a “jobber’’ for THE Wrestling, a WWE-like organization run by a Vince McMahon-like impresario named Everett K. Olson and played by the always reliable Peter Brown, who specializes in business-suited smoothies. Mace’s function is to lose in the ring to Chad Deity (Chris Leon), the swaggering star of THE Wrestling, while making Chad look good.
Leon, so compelling last fall in Company One’s production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “In the Red and Brown Water’’ and “Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet,’’ perfectly captures the preening self-delight of Chad, who wears a mammoth championship belt, talks about himself in the third person, is not above kissing his own biceps, and has a knack for coining catchphrases. Chad knows exactly how essential he is to THE Wrestling’s bottom line, and so does Everett K. Olson.
Mace is more or less resigned to this dispiriting status quo until he meets a cocky young Indian-American from Brooklyn named Vigneshwar Paduar, called VP, and played by the first-rate Jake Athyal. Mace recruits VP into the wrestling circuit — they share a sense that competition is a form of community — and VP catches Olson’s eye. “What is he, Afghan? Oriental?’’ the impresario asks Mace, adding: “I think I might be able to sell him as a fundamentalist. . . . What wrestling needs right now is a Muslim fundamentalist.’’
And thus a new character is born: The Fundamentalist, a glowering, turban-wearing menace who squares off against such red-white-and-blue characters as Billy Heartland and Old Glory (played by Mike Webb). Further, it’s decided that Mace should play a Mexican revolutionary and “denouncer of all things American’’ who is called . . . Che Chavez Castro.
But pretty soon VP and Mace start to depart from the script in ways that subvert the cartoonish stereotypes. They start sending a different, more complicated message than the one the big boss had in mind, one that authentically expresses who they are, where they’re from, and how they feel about the big political/cultural/corporate machine they’re operating inside.
Surely that will spell professional doom, right? Not necessarily. After all, when it comes to absorbing body blows, capitalism is the mightiest combatant of all.Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.