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The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Desmin Borges and Terence Archie
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Of all the possible sports—or, depending on your point of view, sports-like events—that could serve as a metaphor for the American experience, wrestling would seem only slightly more likely a candidate than curling or Ping-Pong. But in his innovative and energetic play, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, which just opened at Second Stage, Kristoffer Diaz makes a dizzyingly compelling—and entertaining—case for it.

Multiculturalism and stereotyping intermingling until they're indistinguishable. Vast resources of strength jockeying for position with institutional weakness. Theatricality at the expense of reality, with the ways things look and sound always more important than what they mean. White men in control, with blacks seen as slaves and everyone else as interlopers. It's all here, so obvious and yet so surprising, that whether or not you agree with Diaz's take (which was a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist, but lost to Next to Normal), you stop questioning, literally within seconds of the show's beginning, that any of this is remotely a gimmick.

Admittedly, this is due in no small part to director Edward Torres and his crack design team (Brian Sidney Bembridge for sets, Christine Pascual for costumes, Jesse Klug for lights, Mikhail Fiksel for sound, Peter Nigrini and Radical Media for projections and video, and fight director David Woolley), who've transformed a usually unassuming Off-Broadway theater into a wrestling arena with extreme prejudice. From the industrial light rigs that flank the stage to the two enormous video monitors above the action to the Colosseum-like ring itself, you're immediately immersed in a realm of color, electricity, and violence that forces you to view every word and action as a (probably pretend) battle to the death.

This is hardly inappropriate. It's the spectacle, the appearance of disorder within a carefully scripted reality, that Macedonio Guerra (Demin Borges) has found alluring ever since his youth. He's always wanted to be a wrestler and tell their kind of stories, and now it's what he's doing—if not quite the way he envisioned. He's what's known as a "heavy lifter," the little guy that does all the work to make the big, muscular, charismatic star look not just good, but great. And there's no question that with Chad Deity (Terence Archie), he succeeds wildly at doing just that.

Usman Ally
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Chad has it all—strength, good looks, an incredible voice—except wrestling ability. Macedonio (whose trade name is "The Mace") supplies that, making every one of Chad's attacks look more painful and incapacitating than it actually is. The mythos of Chad could not exist without the unappreciated Mace, and both of them know it. Perhaps too well. Because when Mace stumbles on a fascinating Indian kid in Red Hook, Vigneshwar Paduar (aka VP, and played by Usman Ally), who knows multiple languages, every possible technique for getting a woman in bed, and that he wants to work for someone who will "elevate" him and make him part of a community, Mace thinks he can just extend the magic.

Not quite. Through the ministrations of THE Wrestling founder Everett K. Olson (EKO for short, played by Michael T. Weiss), VP gets a job as the vaguely Mideast-themed Fundamentalist (complete with exaggerated beard and dynamite-laced vest)—and Mace becomes his heavy lifter, Che Chavez Castro, embodying every socialist and south-of-the-border cliché imaginable from a sequined sombrero to bongos. And, of course, they become a huge, if hollow success—threatening Chad's superiority with media-borne threats that they might lack the ability to back up.

Parallels to American society are already plentiful—so much so that the introduction of a couple of overtly jingoistic wrestlers, with names like Billy Heartland and Old Glory (both played by Christian Litke), who come on board when the Fundamentalist and Che Chavez Castro "threaten" the country's wrestling representative Chad Deity, almost seem like an unnecessary overcalculation. But even so, Diaz seldom goes where you might expect, eschewing the obvious choices, like letting the play become about Chad's struggle to return to the top, or an exploration of the heights from which Mace and VP could technically fall. An established power system, complete with checks and balances, is already in place. The only people who truly fail are those who don't know it.

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, which draws its name from Chad's habit of running three-quarters naked through the audience, flexing his biceps and throwing dollar bills, is strongly cynical in its appraisal of the American Dream, and whether it's worth striving for in the first place. But because its story unfolds wholly through its characters, however archetypal, and because the wrestling is so central and so spectacularly realized, this is an evening that rarely feels like a lecture. (The exception is the last 15 seconds or so, which state in words a theme statement that's been implicit throughout.)

The acting, though sufficiently strong, is not the main event. Archie and Litke fit their roles terrifically well, emanating bravura and braggadocio with every bellow and body blow, but their characters don't run deep; nor does EKO, though Weiss plays the corporate flesh-presser with a gleefully smarmy obliviousness. It's Borges and Ally who must do, yes, the heavy-lifting, and they're up to the challenge, if not quite exceptional at it. Ally doesn't completely convince as either the streetwise ladies' man or behind-the-scenes loose cannon. And except for his deliciously overwrought video close-ups, Borges varies neither his physical nor his vocal delivery much throughout—you really want to see him differentiate Mace from the characters he plays, and progress from knowing innocent to willful coconspirator, and you never quite do.

Every performer, however, holds a place of honor and importance within the show, and each is utterly believable as a pawn in a much larger, more dangerous chess game. You ultimately accept everything they do as authentic, not because the trappings are pristine but because Diaz and Torres have so adroitly created a world within The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity that mirrors—often uncomfortably—the one forever percolating just outside the theater.

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity
Through June 20
Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street at 8th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Second Stage Theatre

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