I could tell this wasn’t going to be a typical play as soon as I stepped into the Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater. Instead of a stage, the performance space featured a wrestling ring, loomed over by a pair of giant TV screens and lighting towers worthy of a rock concert. And Drew Martorella, executive director of Theatreworks, was handing out free ice cold bottles of Budweiser.
But it wasn’t until I spoke to the nicely-dressed woman sitting next to me that I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
“I’m just here for the hardbodies,” she told me.
The play is The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Diety, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated drama by Kristoffer Diaz.
If you think the violent, body-jarring action of professional wrestling and the more rarefied world of live theater make for a strange brew, you’re right. But they also share some interesting similarities.
They’re both ancient forms of entertainment. They both rely on familiar stereotypes to tell stories. And they both use a significant amount of trickery and illusion.
Combine the two, as in Chip Walton’s explosive production here, and you’re in for one hell of a ride.
The show is the first co-production between Theatreworks and Denver’s widely respected Curious Theatre, and the partnership proved to be a real win-win. Curious got to premiere the show, Theatreworks got an “out of town tryout” (as artistic director Murray Ross described it) and together they were able to share the costs of developing the technology-heavy set and attracting an accomplished, bicoastal cast.
Seriously, I don’t know what they paid these guys, but whatever it was, it was worth it. The cast is phenomenal.
The story is told by Macedonio Guerra, or Mace, a scrappy Brooklyn native who plays the fall guy to bigger, less skillful wrestlers. LA-actor Michael Lopez gives this character real heart, telling his story with an easygoing demeanor and a wry wit.
The main problem with the play is that as likable as Mace is, there’s just too much of him in the first act. Yes, his commentary on the “elaborate entrance” of Chad Deity is funny, and his description of the techniques he uses to avoid getting injured during falls is fascinating. But for a long time it feels like the story isn’t going anywhere, and it’s not until Mace meets a streetwise tough kid named VP that we begin to get any real sense of conflict.
But first, back to that famous entrance. Chad Deity, an African-American wrestler with the preening self-confidence of Muhammed Ali and the body of a Da Vinci statue on steroids, is the big moneymaker for THE Wrestling and the face that launched a thousand action figures.
He also happens to be a horrible wrestler. But that doesn’t matter to EKO, the director of THE Wrestling who’s played to snakelike perfection by Denver actor William Hahn. EKO makes sure that when Chad Deity enters the ring, lights flash, music blares and fake hundred-dollar bills flutter to the floor. He also makes sure that Chad Deity never loses, and he does that by sending fall guy after fall guy against the champ, the darker and more foreign-looking the better.
Sure, professional wrestling is fake. But in Mace’s eyes, that’s part of the appeal.
“Don’t get on my art form for being preconceived unless you’re going to get on ballet for knowing the swan is going to die ahead of time.”
As played by NY-actor Patrick Byas, Chad Deity is something of a cartoon, a bicep-kissing caricature of every wrestling star you’ve ever seen. But Byas is so fully committed to his character, you’ll have no trouble believing that somewhere, there must be athletes this ridiculously self-absorbed.
Plus, the's the funniest guy in the cast.
And then VP steps in. With his hip-hop swagger, the Bronx kid seems like the perfect candidate for a pro wrestling bad guy. He even comes up with an idea for a character: a techie who steals American jobs.
But EKO is having none of it. Dubbing him The Fundamentalist, EKO gives VP a scraggly beard and the persona of a crazed Muslim terrorist. Never mind that VP is Indian. To EKO, one dark-skinned villain looks like another.
Mace, meanwhile, is given a sombrero and a pair of bandoliers to play his border-crossing, tequila-swilling Mexcan sidekick. Never mind that Mace is Puerto Rican.
Akshay Kapoor’s finely drawn portrayal of VP is one of the highlights of the play. At first he just seems to be another fast-talking street kid. But as he’s drawn deeper and deeper into the racially-driven fiction that is professional wrestling, he begins to grow a conscience, and its his decision to fight back that sets in motion the final dramatic conflict.
A word about the wrestling. One of my biggest peeves with stage combat is how fake it often looks. That’s not an issue here. The fighting is so authentic, the body slams so agonizingly real, you’ll feel them in your own bones. A large part of the credit for this goes to the single-named Ronin, an 8-year veteran of professional wrestling who trained the cast and choreographed much of the fighting.
In fact, in the second act, there’s so much wrestling action that’s it easy to ignore the undercurrents running just beneath the surface. But they’re there. Diaz forces us to confront the stereotypes that the more educated of us pretend not to believe. But do we laugh at them because they’re so ridiculous or because we feel there’s a grain of truth to them?
And this whole focus on wrestling. Does Diaz really mean to shine such an intense light on that insular little world or does wrestling serve as a metaphor for something else, something bigger?
I don’t know. I’m still thinking about that one.
But there’s no doubt that when the play finally hits, it hits hard, never more so than in the final line of the play, dropped so quietly and so matter-of-factly that the full power of the words don't hit us until after the lights go out.
That’s quite an achievement, however you look at it.
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity
Through November 11, Wednesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday matinees, 2 p.m.; Sunday matinees 4 p.m. TheatreWorks, Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater, 3955 Regent Circle. Tickets, $8-$35, free for UCCS students. Call TheatreWorks at 255-3232 or visit theatreworkscs.org for more.