Let me say right off the bat that I had no intention of seeing this show. It has a silly-sounding title and the advanced publicity said it was about wrestling, something I haven’t paid any attention to since Hulk Hogan’s heyday back in the late ‘80s. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, the play was listed as a runner-up for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama. My theatergoing buddy Bill and I decided we had to see for ourselves how that had happened and we bought tickets immediately.
Good move on our part because we had a ball and it’s now going to be a tough ticket to get. The show is a kinetic mix of gut-busting jokes, fast-paced video projections, blaring music, hip-hop-infused dialog, real wrestling moves and energetic audience participation that even I, who usually cringe when actors run into the audience, loved, although I confess that may have something to do with the fact that one of the wrestlers chose Bill to brandish the America flag while he ripped his muscles and whipped the crowd into a U.S.A chanting frenzy. The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity could turn a frat-boy into a show queen. (Click here to see some scenes from the show.)
But beneath all the razzle dazzle—and the reason the smart Pulitzer jury singled the play out—is a sharp, satirical look at many of the major issues that keep body-slamming the U.S. in the 21st century: the fascination with celebrity, the obsession with money, and the preoccupation with race that constantly pits one ethnic group against another.
As advertised, the show centers around the stars and supporting players of a fictional wrestling federation. A Puerto Rican wrestler named Mace serves as the color commentator, in all senses of the word, as the action unfolds. Mace is the perpetual fall guy, whose assignment is to lose to the pretty boy and pop-muscled stars in a way that makes them look like better wrestlers than they really are.
Mace’s usual opponent is the title character, Chad Deity, a black showboat with limited talent. Mace’s new protégée is Vigneshwar Paduar, a wiry Indian kid, whom the sleazy white owner of the federation assigns the ring name The Fundamentalist and costumes as Osama bin Laden, complete with turban, beard and a signature move called the “sleeper cell kick.” The wrestlers know it’s all just show biz but their festering resentment about the roles they’re forced to play moves The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity from an amusing cartoon into a cautionary tale.
Black and brown actors don’t often get layered roles like these. And Terence Archie as the charismatic Chad and Usman Ally as the conflicted Paduar are both sensational (not to mention sensationally buffed--kudos to the casting team for finding actors who both look the part and play it so well). The standout, however, is Desmin Borges, whose Mace won me over from his first speech in which he declares a love for wrestling (feel free to substitute America) that began in childhood and that he can’t give up despite how badly it treats him. Borges is both funny and touching. It’s a bravura performance.
But everyone involved in this show has brought his or her A-game. Christine Pascual’s costumes are LOL funny. Brian Sidney Bembridge has conceived an equally amusing set that centers around a large wrestling ring, overseen by giant video screens (well stocked with images designed by Peter Nigrini) and magnificently lit by Jesse Klug. Meanwhile, Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design keeps the proceedings at an appropriately high pitch. And, needless to say, fight director David Woolley deserves a big shout out for the wrestling choreography (click here to read a New York Times piece about how the actors trained).
Still, star billing has to go Edward Torres, the artistic director of Teatro Vista in Chicago, where the show recently had its world premiere earlier this year. It’s hard to imagine how any succeeding director is going to top the stagecraft he devised for this high-powered production. The critics have gone crazy for the show (click here to read some of the reviews on StageGrade). All I can add is, Believe the hype.