I’m not a big fan of wrestling, unless it’s used in a sentence with the words “college”, “male”, and “singlet”. Other than their brilliant production of Blackbird this summer, I’ve also not been particularly interested in many of the productions that Victory Gardens has put up over the years, with many of these plays’ appeal skewering towards a, shall we say, more mature demographic. And then there was that title: The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity – quite a mouthful, and frankly, possible turn-off, for us living in the 21st century digital age marked by soundbytes, tweets, quick finishes, and cut-to-the-chases. But, man, does Kristoffer Diaz’s world premiere play beat all expectations and smash all pre-conceptions. It’s the equivalent of a theatrical bungee-jump: dizzying, exhilarating, frightening, adventuresome, immensely satisfying. It shoves the audience into a rambunctious ride through racial and global-socio-political provocations, presented within the world of professional wrestling portrayed as a reflection of an America wracked with biases, division, vague xenophobia, lowbrowness, and a need for even bigger refrigerator crispers. Oh, and brilliantly written with the unmistakable, hypnotic rhythms of hip-hop. And with its wacky, crowd-pleasing, fourth-wall-breaking “elaborate entrances” for the wrestlers, it’s more fun and rockin’ than drunken people-watching at the Metro on a Friday night. It’s a take-no-prisoners theatrical production that is so unlike the rest of Chicago theater this year, it’s already deservedly earned a spot in my top ten list for 2009 (and yes, the year isn’t even done yet!). It’s that great, and you’ll be bodyslamming your apartment wall silly if you miss it.
Chad Deity is the reigning champion, and symbol of all-American physical supremacy, of THE Wrestling, which is Diaz’s send-up of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). And although his general cluelessness and lack of any real wrestling talent is at the crux of many of the play’s hilarious moments (and Kamal Angelo Bolden delightfully plays him as a ditsy beefcake), he is a supporting player in the production that bears his name. The actual lead role belongs to Macedonio Guerra aka “The Mace”, a middle-of-the-pack wrestler who, for lack of star quality or brownnosing savvy (or maybe both) is often relegated to cannon fodder for Chad Deity’s, and the other more audience-captivating wrestlers’, staged victories. Macedonio meets an American-Indian teenager (exceptionally-acted by the always riveting Usman Ally) playing basketball in a New Jersey park, recognizes star charisma, brings him to THE Wrestling’s big boss as a possible candidate for the next wrestling star, and agrees to team up with the kid as a pair of nemeses for Chad Deity: an Arab fundamentalist terrorist and a Latino guerilla. And in the breathtakingly great performance of Desmin Borges as Macedonio, one of the most electric currently onstage in Chicago, Diaz’s complex, at times incendiary writing, gets a whole lot of heart and empathy.
And that writing is often jaw-dropping, as Diaz makes pungent, at times uncomfortable, but always striking and powerful points about Americans’ relationships with the world, and with their own ethnically and racially diverse society. I’m sure the audience-squirm factor is pretty high in the scenes, for example, when the “terrorist” duo taunt Chad Deity with references ranging from sleeper cells to the Mexican drug trade (in live video that is arrestingly photographed) or in Macedonio’s climactic breakdown scene where the sense of being a member of a minority group is firmly etched. But this is important, no-holds-barred, confrontational writing which brings to the fore our current society’s oftentimes subtle, passive-aggressive ambivalence with other cultures, races, and citizens, which manifests itself, for example, in rooting for “American” heroes to win over “non-American” villains in professional wrestling. The scenes of the Arab “fundamentalist” wrestler beating the crap out of wrestlers representing stereotypical Americana (all hilariously played by Christian Litke, a real WWF wrestler) are daring, somewhat uncomfortable, but undeniably memorable.
All this great writing and acting (as well as Brian Sydney Bembridge’s stunning wrestling ring set) would all be for naught if not for a firm directorial hand, delicately balancing verve and sensitivity. Chad Deity is a co-production with Teatro Vista, the city’s leading Latino theater, and Teatro Vista’s Artistic Director Eddie Torres masterfully, vibrantly directs this play. Torres infuses the play with a lot of excitement and bravado (especially in the audience-set scenes of the “elaborate” wrestler entrances) but is also meticulous enough to keep the intimacy of the scenes (Macedonio’s recounting of his childhood fascination with watching wrestling on TV or his first encounter with the teenager, Vigneshwar) that require them. He coordinates all of the other elements – the hip-hop score, the video projections – very well to complement the play, not to distract from it.
As it is with many world premieres, Chad Deity isn’t flawless. I think the two hour and a half running time can still be trimmed, and Diaz can tone down on some of the anger that comes through in some of the scenes. But this is phenomenal theater, and is the definite must-see for the fall theater season. I know I’ve been over-the-moon with some productions recently, but that’s the wonderful, irreplaceable benefit of living in such a theatrically vibrant city. Chad Deity towers over everything currently on stage in Chicago, and shame on you if you haven’t gotten your ticket yet before the run concludes.
And conclude it will! The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is onstage at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 Lincoln Ave., only until November 1. Run to the box-office right now, kids!