Theater review: ‘The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity’ at Geffen Playhouse
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“The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” Kristoffer Diaz’s vibrant play set in the wacky world of professional wrestling, seems tailor-made for people who find contemporary drama dull, staid and more or less irrelevant. This satirical work, which opened Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse, leaps out of the proscenium frame at every opportunity, exhorting, drop-kicking and body-slamming its way into an immediacy that is more familiar to sporting events and rap concerts than to a traditional night of theater.
Diaz is part of a generation of new dramatists (a group that includes Rajiv Joseph, Young Jean Lee and Tarell Alvin McCraney) intent on rousing the stage from its doldrums of respectability and self-importance. But this talented new voice isn’t rabble-rousing for the sake of rabble-rousing. Diaz finds in the flamboyant, carefully stage-managed fakery of professional wrestling a metaphor for a modern-day America sold out to corporate values and perpetually paranoid about racial otherness.
The political thrust of “Chad Deity,” a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama, seems more pertinent than ever as the 2012 presidential campaign swings into high gear, with candidates preying on unconscious fears and talking smack like the next Hulk Hogan. Diaz recognizes that superstardom in any field today means learning how to master and manipulate social codes. True artists — statesmen and showboating wrestlers not excluded — choose their own lonely truth over crowd-pleasing lies. But in a culture impregnated with reality TV values, swallowing one’s integrity must seem like a small price to pay for the riches and rewards of the media spotlight.
Macedonio Guerra (Desmin Borges), known as Mace, serves as the play’s narrator. Undersized yet highly skilled, he is the wrestling equivalent of a straight man. His job is to make his more gargantuan, less qualified opponents look like killers in the ring. His love for professional wrestling, born from a childhood spent mesmerized before the TV on Saturday mornings in the Bronx, is pure. But he’s accepted his lot as a tool of Everett K. Olson (Steve Valentine), EKO for short, the slick, scheming owner of THE Wrestling, the league that has made a champion out of a strutting, fake-money-throwing African American colossus known as Chad Deity (Terence Archie).
The plot revolves around a discovery Mace makes in Brooklyn of an Indian American homeboy named Vigneshwar Paduar (Usman Ally). A lanky motor-mouth with charisma to burn, VP hustles all the neighborhood tough guys in hoops and samples slang from other urban cultures like a D.J. mixing hip-hop grooves. Mace doesn’t know what to make of this character at first, but he feels a connection and decides that, though he may be lacking in girth, VP has everything else he needs to become the next THE Wrestling megastar.
Of course that means exposing him to EKO, who has an uncanny knack for giving audiences the base melodramatic entertainment they insatiably desire. VP undergoes a wrestling makeover and emerges as The Fundamentalist, with Mace, also transformed, becoming his sidekick Che Chavez Castro. The world of professional wrestling, which seems to delight Diaz as much as disturb him, apparently means never having to apologize for racist stereotypes. But the question that intrigues the author isn’t so much the obvious one about the price of fame but, more ambitiously, about the possibility of communicating something genuine within a dishonest medium.
It’s a conundrum that seems very much on the mind of Diaz, a rambunctious presence on Twitter, who has talked and tweeted openly about his place in the institutional theater world. Can he find welcome (and a livable wage) as a dramatist and not play by the stultifying rules? Is there room for a convention-buster who wants to boisterously point out that the old way is whacked?
To go by the success of “Chad Deity,” a hit at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater and later at New York’s Second Stage Theater, the answer is an unequivocal yes.
This production, directed by Edward Torres, whose lengthy association with the play is an obvious asset, goes a long way toward upending the Geffen Playhouse’s normal order of business. The cast, which also includes Justin Leeper and Timothy Talbott in assorted secondary roles, galvanizes with every thundering monologue and powerbomb maneuver, bringing the theatrics into the aisles and narrowing the gap between the action and the audience.
Peter Nigrini’s projection and video design expand the universe of Brian Sidney Bembridge’s ringside set. Christina Haatainen Jones’ costumes, Jesse Klug’s lighting, and Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design are united in the mission of keeping “Chad Deity” propulsive and fresh.
The fight scenes are more daringly staged than one might expect at a regional theater mindful of insurance premiums, even if the smaller builds of Ally and Borges make it somewhat implausible that either one could be packaged into a professional wrestling character. Somewhat more problematic is the tendency of Diaz to spell out his big themes. But perhaps this is just his way of reminding us that the thrillingly outlandish spectacle we’re watching has more to do with our lives than any of us nonwrestling types may care to admit.
“The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, L.A. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 9 $47 - $77 (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes