Most nights of theater do not begin with a pre-curtain, undercard wrestling match. But Actors Guild of Lexington’s production of The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, a 2010 Pulitzer Prize-nominated play about professional wrestling by Kristoffer Diaz, does.
As audience members drifted into the theater on Aug. 29, “Captain Redneck” Bob Murdoch and “Imhotep the Resurrected” Marcus Johnson warmed up the audience for the main event with their rivalry. As they pummeled and danced around each other, exchanging witty barbs between blows, I was surprised by how loud each crash to the mat was. But literal and metaphorical high-volume powerbombs were what the evening was all about.
Subtlety is neither needed nor welcome in Diaz’ spectacle-rich satire. In it, America’s low-brow grappling with crudely formed cultural stereotypes and tropes (all played out by men play-fighting in tights, the show’s narrator Mace points out) is a gold mine for leaders willing to tap into and manipulate the hopes and fears on which those stereotypes and tropes are based.
Directed with a requisite embrace of spectacle by Eric Seale, the show centers around young Puerto Rican narrator Macedonio Guerro “The Mace” (Stakar Fripp), who fell in love with wrestling as a young boy watching WWF on Saturday mornings and has fulfilled his dream by wrestling for THE Wrestling company. But he makes his living as the perpetual loser. He is a “jobber” who uses his superior wrestling skills to make the stars look good.
In industry slang, he’s a permanent heel, and he’s one of the reasons THE Wrestling hero Chad Deity (Whit Whitaker) is a rich superstar.
Whitaker’s performance as Chad Deity is puffed up comic perfection. From his money-throwing entrance in a fur coat to his ringside speech about the superiority of his refrigerator’s unused vegetable crispers, Whitaker embodies the hard, plastic mythologies of the American Dream. Chad Deity is more than an American hero. Chad Deity is America and America is money and big refrigerators.
But Chad Deity needs bad guys to squash, like America needs foes to defeat.
When fast-talking, multi-lingual, charisma-oozing Brooklyn boy VP (Ruda Tovar) walks onto the scene, a new foe is born. Mace ditches his jobber status to become VP’s “manager,” and the team becomes a villainous duo characterized by a woefully offensive mashup of racial and cultural inaccuracies.
Fripp and Tovar are welcome fresh faces to the area theater scene. Fripp’s Mace is a big role to cut one’s acting teeth on (he comes from a musical theater background, having performed in several UK Opera productions), but he brings a youthful zest to the role, believably showing how Mace’s naive idealism is what allows him to turn a blind eye to the utter offensiveness of what his dream profession requires of him (like pretending to be a Mexican villain ludicrously named Che Chavez Castro). He willingly takes on the cultural mantle of fear-soaked “otherness” when he is really just a Puerto Rican-American kid from New York.
Tovar is all swagger and charm as VP, a native New Yorker who happens to be Indian. Like Mace, he also agrees to portray a generic, caricatured brown villain (The Fundamentalist, a Muslim whose special move is the “sleeper cell” kick), but not because he loves wrestling — so he can subvert the system from within.
Fripp does a good job of showing how VP’s loftier ideas of community among exploited minorities changes Mace’s understanding of his place in THE Wrestling, and it is within these two characters’ plights that Diaz cultivates an important dialogue about complex race relations in America and what it really means to be an American.
Bob Singleton’s role as EKO, the money-drunk puppetmaster pulling the strings at THE Wrestling is a scintillating villain. While loving to hate him from the audience, I was aware of the irony that EKO is a caricature worthy of his own pay-per-view broadcast. He is The Man, the white guy who will embrace any stunt or gimmick at any expense to make as much money as possible. He is everybody’s Boss. He is The System. Singleton nails his villainy with fascinating and disgusting drive.
In the end, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is about more than just wrestling, and even more than about the fascinating and corrupt interplay of good vs. bad cultural stereotypes in mainstream America. It’s about whether and how to have dignity within a system that is designed to capitalize on your disenfranchisement.
“In wrestling, you can’t kick a guy’s ass without the help of the guy whose ass you’re kicking,” Mace explains.
Sometimes, that is true in life as well. Whatever system is oppressing you may continue to clobber you even as you try harder to be a part of it. But as Mace learns, the way to stop being a heel is to make them look you in the eye when they do it.