For a play about professional wrestling, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is remarkably devoid of action. Those expecting a redux of Darren Aronofsky’s fantastic 2008 film, The Wrestler, with its flagrant drug use, excessive violence, and insightful portrait of human decay, will be sorely disappointed. Not that Kristoffer Diaz’ new drama, now playing at Aurora Theatre under the direction of Jon Tracy, is suffering for lack of insight. In many ways it’s an extremely powerful play, with searing observations about how televised wrestling, which is more a scripted performance than a sport, capitalizes on our most base stereotypes about race and the human body.
That message is clear from the start, when Macedonio “The Mace” Guerra (Tony Sancho) emerges to deliver an opening soliloquy about wrestling and pop culture. Handsome and combative (it’s worth noting that “Guerra” means “war,”) with defined pectoral muscles and a sultry Bronx accent, he reminisces on his childhood introduction to wrestling, playing with action figures and watching their real-life counterparts on the boob tube. The sport’s whole pop-culture image was calculated to seduce a young working-class kid with an aspirational ego: Champs not only vanquished their opponents, but also reaped glittery belts and bucketfuls of cash. Most of them entered the ring with one or two bikini-clad women. Such things were an easy sign of success for Guerra, who recalls the sugary cereal jingles that dominated all the commercial breaks, and only helped bolster the theme — Frosted Flakes’ mascot, after all, was a brawny orange tiger.
That whole visual vocabulary comes to life in Nina Ball’s set design, which includes a large wrestling ring at the center stage and two video screens in back to show the extravagant wrestler promos. Flames ripple, dollar bills spill from the sky, and strobes glitter around the perimeter of the theater with Vegas-style razzle-dazzle. Conceived by Ball and video artist Jim Gross, it’s a real departure for Aurora in that the mise-en-scène outpaces the action, and much of the story takes place in elaborate video montages. Apropos of its title, Chad Deity is all about elaborate entrances. It’s an obvious appeal to audience members who are more accustomed to the theatrics of television than to conventional stage theater.
Yet behind all that glitz lies a very simple morality tale. Guerra works for Everett “EKO” Olson (Rod Gnapp), a cheesy executive who runs a stable of professional wrestlers called THE. With a closet full of pinstripe suits and a Bluetooth headset permanently affixed to his ear, Olson is every bit the corporate mercenary — evil only insofar as he’s driven solely by profit, and otherwise completely disinterested in his employees. Thus, Guerra, by far the best wrestler but ostensibly the least marketable — in Olson’s eyes, at least — is hired as a “jobber,” meaning he deliberately loses in order to make his opponents look good. His archrival, Chad Deity (Beethovan Oden), is unctuous and hulky but otherwise completely unskilled. His job is merely to lean back and thrust his hips as Guerra plunges dramatically to the mat. (The move is called a “power bomb” in wrestling argot.) Thus, each of their bouts seems to end in a decisive knockout, even though it’s entirely staged.
Why, exactly, Olson chose to make his best athlete a loser and his worst a champ is never completely clear, other than it has something to do with patriotism. Olson somehow decided it would be easier for American audiences to latch their sympathies onto a sinewy African American than a Latino with a foreign-sounding name, and that, somehow, every Deity victory would be a win for America “by proxy.” That by itself is a venal exploitation of racist stereotypes and nationalist sentiment, but Olson takes it several steps further after hiring Guerra’s friend, Vigneshar “VP” Paduar (Nasser Khan), to play a pan-Arabic wrestling caricature called “The Fundamentalist.” Guerra is then dispatched to be a sombrero-clad sidekick, Che Chavez Castro.
Diaz drew up the most vulgar stereotypes he could find and piled them onto his characters, if only to serve the larger point about how racism and xenophobia operate in pop culture. In the satirical world of Chad Deity, each actor’s body is a prepackaged cliché, and each cliché is endlessly commodified. Diaz doesn’t so much argue the point as scream it, and the fights in this play — all beautifully choreographed by Dave Maier, who also plays wrestlers Billy Heartland and “The Bad Guy” — are mere interruptions in what’s really a series of interconnected monologues. It’s a fitting play for Tracy, who specializes in hard-hitting, concept-driven work and enjoys violating the old rule of “show don’t tell.” Just don’t expect to see the blood sport and pathos of pro wrestling.
Diaz may have intended to show the humanity of his characters but he accomplished the opposite: Chad Deity is largely a social commentary, and the actors function as vessels for the playwright’s opinions. For all their elaborate entrances, these characters barely move.