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Just because it’s scripted doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.
For a show that urges the fine-dining, public radio-listening sophisticates who make up Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s subscriber base to tap their suppressed bloodlust and chant for a professional wrestler to end one of his opponents with his customary coup de grace—“Pow! Er! Bomb! Pow! Er! Bomb!”—The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is surprisingly philosophical.
“You can’t kick a guy’s ass without the help of the guy whose ass you’re pretending to kick,” observes Mace, the likeable, long-suffering wrestling professional at this uproarious and energetic play’s center.
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A kid who grew up in the ’80s playing with “wrestling guys” (don’t call them action figures, and don’t even think about calling them dolls), Mace has lucked into a dream job getting beat up on TV for a fictional wrestling league. He’s a hardworking company man, a better athlete than many of the bigger names he pretends are tearing him apart in the ring, and above all a believer that wrestling has a potential for narrative art that it hasn’t yet fully exploited.
All this we learn via monologues, lots of them, delivered with dimensional brio by José Joaquín Pérez, who shines in the role. It’s this belief in wrestling’s untapped power that keeps him tramping down whatever pangs of conscience he may feel when EKO, his blowhard of a boss (Michael Russotto, as oily as his slicked-back hair) bets on his audience’s xenophobia and racism in pursuit of a quick buck. (The show doesn’t seem to allow for the possibility that smart, socially conscious people might take pleasure in wrestling’s overheated spectacle, too.) When he’s ordered to turn a gifted young multiracial kid from Brooklyn he’s recruited into a modern-day minstrel-show figure called The Fundamentalist, Mace’s budding social conscience—or is it his resentment at being passed over for the spotlight so many times himself?—becomes too much to take.
“What is he?” EKO asks him. “Afghan? Persian?”
“That’s a rug and a rug,” Mace shoots back—but to us, never to his boss. Then again, maybe a guy wearing a sombrero and gunbelts calling himself Che Chavez Castro is poorly positioned to be giving lectures on racial sensitivity.
Given the way professional wrestling blends sport and showbiz—even if it’s hardly a one-to-one mixture—it’s a wonder more satirists haven’t chosen to play within this milieu. In Chad Deity, playwright Kristoffer Diaz plows this fertile field for all it’s worth, finding gargantuan laughs and genuine pathos in the fixed-price, anything-goes, made-for-TV bastardization of wrestling. No wonder the play has received dozens of productions since 2010, when it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. I didn’t see any of Chad Deity’s earlier mountings, but it’s tough to imagine something better than the hyperkintetic spectacle John Vreeke has directed for Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. The show is technically astonishing, making sly use of projected video (by Jared Mezzocchi) to show us the promotional minifilms through which its various wrestlers are promoted to the public. More impressive still is the actual wrestling, choreographed by Joe Isenberg with help from James Long, a real-life pro wrestler who makes an assured acting debut here as a string of palookas brought in to feed the champ. When these hulking slabs of beef body-slam and clothesline one another, it’s as over-the-top and noisy as the real thing. Well, you know what I mean.