I’ll say this for the 2017-18 Perseverance Theatre season: it certainly starts off with a bang. Actually, not a bang, but a “Power Bomb,” the signature move of the title character of the season opener, “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” a vibrant comedy set in the wacky world of professional wrestling.
Obviously, devotees of theatre tend not to be pro wrestling fans (and vice versa), although both industries rely heavily on symbolism, illusion and the suspension of disbelief. Still, regardless of your taste for large men in tight spandex pretending to beat the heck out of each other, “Chad Deity” offers a refreshing change of pace for anyone who finds contemporary theatre a tad stuffy.
Indeed, complete with thumping music, flashing lights and real (by which I mean fake) wrestling, this brawny production of Kristoffer Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated script celebrates the loud, bright, larger-than-life “sport” the play lauds as the true American pastime, “one of the most profound expressions of the ideals of this… nation.” Perseverance went to great lengths evoking the look, feel and sound of a main event, plunking down an actual ring in the center of the theatre and hanging jumbo projection screens, banners and chain link fencing — an homage to the fabled “steel-cage death match.”
And yet, amidst the fixed fights and phony body slams “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” also radiates intellectual energy, as it grapples with issues of class, race, celebrity, art, capitalism and American pop culture.
The play follows the life of wrestler Macedonio Guerra (ring name “Mace”), whose role as a “jobber,” in wrestling parlance, involves perpetually losing to bigger-name stars. For Mace, that’s Chad Deity, himself, the preening egocentric champion and face of THE Wrestling.
Ironically, Mr. Deity stinks at wrestling (his talent is showmanship). Macedonio, a lifelong devotee, has developed into a skilled practitioner — in professional wrestling, the “loser” does most of the heavy lifting, selecting the order of moves and delivering a performance specifically meant to enhance the audience’s enjoyment of his defeat.
Mace is the consummate fall guy. He exists solely to make other people look good (which, in turn, also makes them rich and famous). “You can’t kick a guy’s ass without the help of the guy whose ass you’re kicking,” he says in one of many extended monologues (for a pro wrestler, he sure does wax philosophic — at length, especially during the play’s first act).
And this suits him fine. To Macedonio, wrestling is an art form: “you wouldn’t put down ballet just because you know the swan is going to die before the end, would you?”
But when he meets swaggering Indian-American kid Vigneshwar Paduar, VP for short, Mace spies an opportunity to change his narrative, shake up the sport and maybe, just maybe, finally outshine Chad Deity.
Nimbly directed by Shona Osterhout, “Chad Deity” attempts to paint a lifelike portrait of people who are, themselves, caricatures. And it’s nothing if not entertaining. Here, audience members become ringside spectators — literally. Perseverance reconfigured some of its main stage seating arrangements to surround the ring, just like an authentic pro wrestling match. At my performance, some people showed up carrying signs; one couple even wore Mexican “lucha libre” masks.
Audio-visually, the production also dazzles, courtesy of Greg Mitchell’s set and lighting, Paul Spadone’s spot-on costuming (can you say gold glitter codpiece?) and Rory Stitt’s sound design. The onstage wrestling bouts, courtesy of fight choreographer Frank Delaney, look and feel as real as the real thing, which is, of course, not real at all. Wow, that’s meta.
And the cast also seems to revel in the fun. Perseverance actor-in-residence Enrique Bravo gives us a funny, but nuanced Mace, equally at home meditating on global politics and demonstrating the “Camel Clutch.” Vimel Sephus delivers a delightfully muscular performance as Chad Deity and Jacob Athyal shines as VP, particularly in his wrestling persona, a swarthy, bearded character called “The Fundamentalist,” whose specialty move is the “sleeper cell kick.”
Rounding out the cast: Perseverance Artistic Associate and Director of Education Tom Robenolt as Everett K. Olson, the money-hungry and clueless boss of THE Wrestling and Richard Jay Carter, listed in the credits as The Bad Guy but also double-and triple-cast as wrestlers Billy Heartland and Old Glory. Talk about a “jobber.”
Diaz’s dialogue snaps, crackles and pops, as you might expect from a Pulitzer-nominated playwright, although some may find his message a little heavy-handed, and his themes too blatantly spelled-out. “Chad Deity” isn’t subtle, but then, neither is professional wrestling.
Geoff Kirsch is a freelance writer living in Juneau.