4 stars out 4
Red Theatre Chicago’s production of Kristoffer Diaz’s 2009 play The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is not as elaborate as it was in the premiere several years ago at Victory Gardens, but it captures the high-octane heart of the spectacle and the outsize personalities that make it beat, providing an electrifying reflection on the world of professional wrestling that also offers a cogent critique of American values. Though to look at them, none of the cast could ever be mistaken for “real” pro wrestlers (e.g. John Cena or AJ Styles), but it takes only moments to forget this, because they attack their roles and each other with relish, capturing the cartoonish sincerity of the all-American version of the “sport” of pro wrestling. Diaz provides plenty of verbal firepower as well, and the cast, led by the nimble Alejandro Tey, delivers the rapid-fire barrage of words with as much aplomb as they deliver an encyclopedia of wrestling moves. Making them look good is an on-point design team that captures the cheesy yet rousing look and feel of THE Wrestling, the play’s version of WWE. Most important, though, is that they realize that neither pro wrestling, nor Diaz’s super-charged explication of it, is really about wrestling, but about the American Dream and what this looks like to different people.
Narrating the story—and explaining the truly finer points of professional wrestling—is Macedonio Guerra, aka Mace (Alejandro Tey). Mace is so anonymous to the crowds ringside that he wears a mask. The fact that this is a lucha libre mask means nothing to either the people who pay to see him lose or promoter Everett K. Olsen, aka EKO,(Mickey O’Sullivan). It is clear from the start that Mace is not only more physically capable than his colleagues, but he has a more sophisticated understanding of pro wrestling, its traditions and its appeal than those who sign his paychecks. The eponymous Chad Deity (Semaj Miller) is the face of THE Wrestling, a muscled giant with a megawatt smile, charisma (and money) to burn, and very limited actual wrestling skills. Playing supporting roles, and making sure that the right story gets told are a parade of pro wrestling archetypes, all played with just the right amount versatility by Will Snyder, and the smirking referee played by Dave Honigman. Entering from the outside, and faced with the decision of how to shape the narrative is Vigneshwar Paduar, aka VP, an Indian American who is not the right shade of brown to fit the stock plotlines of the promotion. As the play unfolds, the momentousness of this intrusion to all the characters becomes clear.
Alejandro Tey brings the right balance of evangelical enthusiasm and physical prowess to the role of Mace, a Nuyorican wrestler who takes pride in making less skilled wrestlers look good because he understands the importance of his role the story. As the champion and face of THE Wrestling, Chad Deity, Semaj Miller conveys his character’s limitations, his outsized ego, and ultimately his professionalism and understanding of the business. Will Syder (who also serves as fight captain) plays his roles with the right swagger and bravado, tempered with an awareness of the need to advance the plot—both in the play and the ring; a former pro wrestler, he understands how to take a fall to full effect and also how to create distinctions between characters that might easily become interchangeable. Dave Honigman makes the most of his role as the Referee and assorted backup wrestlers, literally throwing himself into the ring to keep the action on track. As EKO, Mickey O’Sullivan does not shirk from the racist, crotch-grabbing, foul-mouthed excess of his character, but he injects enough insight and compassion into his role to leave his intentions obscure enough to question one’s judgement of him. As Vigneshwar Paduar, Priyank Thakkar smoothly falls into the code-switching, class-and-continent bridging cadences of the kid who can trash talk in English, Spanish, Urdu and Hindi, with a bit of Chinese, Italian and Polish thrown in as the situation demands. The smartest kid on the block and an outsider in the wrestling game, VP sees its potential and also recognizes how far it has to go to reach it.
Director Jeremy Aluma clearly understands the textures of Diaz’s script—there is the homage to wrestling, the ridiculous excess that masks the business savvy, and the expression of the American Dream that both dazzles and destroys. He is also well-versed in metaphor, because, while the world of professional wrestling offers the perfect vehicle for bludgeoning the audience with its point, it is not the only world where the American Dream may not look the same for everyone, and the masses don’t really cheer the underdog—they cheer their guy. Not only has he assembled a cast that truly gets it, and has the chops to pull it off, but the design team effectively transports the audience to the stadium of a pro wrestling tournament. Scenic and props designer Michael Lewis has filled the space with a functioning ring (with a deck that transmits the thud of every body slam) and props that reinforce the illusion of the wrestling world. Costume designer Hailey Rakowiecki dresses and accessorizes the cast with wardrobes that convey the appropriate stereotypes, with a range of appropriate ties for EKO. From Mace’s lucha libre costume, to the workout bling for Chad Deity, to the various all-American guys (the redneck Bad Guy, the good ole country boy and the military veteran) and the ridiculous racial/ethnic stereotypes of the robed and turbaned Fundamentalist and the stock Latino revolutionary Che Chavez Castro (sombrero, bandana and “Hecho in Mexico” t-shirt), Rakowiecki clothes the colorful characters in even more colorful costumes. Lending arena-like scale to the tiny Strawdog space are Brian Lawrie’s overwrought, jingoistic projections, which perfectly enlarge the outsize but human-scale characters, and Sarah D. Espinoza’s brilliant sound design, which scores each elaborate entrance with only-slightly-tongue-in-cheek bombast. Lighting designer Charles Blunt effectively shifts between the bright lights of the stadium and the more subdued behind-the-scenes lighting, even though there is not much playing space outside the squared circle. In a play that explores the lines between reality and show, even the violence sometimes skirts that line—fight director Kyle Encinas admirably keeps the border between the real and fake distinct, except on those occasions when the narrative demands a little fuzziness.
Kristoffer Diaz’s 2009 play has withstood the test of time, and Red Theater Chicago delivers the humor and passionate, heart-pounding, bone-crunching momentum it requires to soar. Beyond the physical and verbal pyrotechnics, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is about creating community, recognizing differences, respecting others and the American Dream. Diaz and Red Theater Chicago bring a lot of love and passion to their portrait of pro wrestling, despite understanding that wrestling in America as it exists in the WWE and its fictional counterpart, THE Wrestling, may be just as inflexible as the wrestling guys that the promotions sell. Mace manages to live his American dream, despite being too good to be allowed to look good in the ring, while working behind the scenes to get into title contention. The potential is there. One change that has happened in the WWE since this play was first performed is that there are a wider range of characters who stand a chance in the scripted main events. Progress is being made. As Chad Deity shows, with blood-pumping action and quick-witted poetry, the framework for a more inclusive version of the American Dream is in place, if enough people want to change the script.
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, produced by Red Theater Chicago, runs through September 17 at Strawdog Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice, Chicago, Thursdays – Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 4 pm. Captioned performances take place Monday, August 28 and Thursday, August 31, and there will be a touch tour at 2 pm on Sunday, August 27. Reservations can be made at redtheater.org/tickets. For more information, also see www.theatreinchicago.com.
Photo by M. Freer Photography, l-r Semaj Miller and Alejandro Tey
Kerstin Broockmann spent years working in Chicago storefront theaters, mostly as a director, but also venturing into performing, designing lights and violence, stage management and writing/adaptation. Some of her favorite theatrical experiences include work with Azusa, Pyewacket, Rogue, A Sense of Urgency, The Strange Tree Group, Tinfish and Tripaway. She served for several years on the board of the Women’s Theater Alliance and helped coordinate the New Plays Workshop and Festival for two years, as well as editing and contributing to the WTA Newsletter for a spell. Now an AMS-Certified elementary teacher at Intercultural Montessori Language School, Kerstin’s directing work in recent years has been limited to staged readings, though she was also able to sneak in a production of Don Juan in Hell for Rogue Theater as well. A former amateur boxer, Kerstin has also written ringside reports for the blog Cyber Boxing Zone.