IN A MOMENT OF APPROPRIATE SERENDIPITY, the act of typing this sentence coincided with the receipt of an email notifying me that Kristoffer Diaz‘s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity had been named one of three finalists for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. While the timing is a little uncanny, the honor comes as no surprise: Diaz’s pro-wrestling fable is as thrilling and powerful as anything I’ve seen onstage in recent years.
The show tosses an outsized ante from the onset, blaring uncensored hip-hop as the audience finds its seats, faced by Joe Stanley’s scenic design, which entails a series of ramps around a prominent wrestling ring (that eventually finds ample use). From there it’s all color, lights, and video — a sensory overload commensurate with its subject matter.
But there’s far more going on here than mere flash and body slams. The action begins with narration by the earnest and hyper-articulate Macedonio (Gerardo Rodriguez), who weaves a story of his poor upbringing in the Bronx, and the virtues and deficiencies of various wrestling action figures he and his brothers played with. Macedonio loves wrestling as a purist and has no shortage of reasons why.
His job is to lose wrestling matches, and to make the winners look good; he sees his role as part of the great American project of cooperation in grand style. Less of a social theorist is his boss, founder of THE Wrestling, Everett K. Olson (Edwin Strout); Olson is an unapologetic opportunist, a conduit for the means to satisfy his huge audience’s most base and simplistic appetites.
Olson’s golden goose is the titular Chad Deity (Ansa Akyea), who does indeed make a very elaborate entrance, rising from the back of the room amid flashing lights, pounding music, and smoke. Akyea embodies the Id unleashed; dressed in skimpy tights, he bounds through the audience to the stage, mugging, shaking, dancing, and generally proclaiming his character’s outrageous and unshakable belief in his own fabulousness.
Chad is a star, and he knows it, but then things get complicated. On a day off, Macedonio goes to a Brooklyn playground, where he meets the cat everyone in the neighborhood is talking about: Vigneshwar (Shalin Agarwal), an Indian one-man global seduction machine, who speaks a smattering of countless languages and lives as if he were born to some groovy world without ethnic boundaries; it turns out, Vigneshwar is also looking to take his act to the next level.
Macedonio sees his new charge as the anti-Chad. In his view, Chad represents everything that’s wrong with wrestling and, thus, with America itself: Chad is a materialist braggart, a corporate tool, and, worst of all, a terrible wrestler who wins only because the matches are scripted. Macedonio wants to mold Vigneshwar into a new kind of hero, who could surf the waves of multiculturalism and embody the rise of new world powers such as India and China, epitomizing a sexy, post-racial moment set to a hip-hop beat.
Olson’s response to Macedonio’s big proposal is a blank stare (Strout is terrifically crass throughout), and this is as far as the idea goes. But Olson offers another in its place: put Vigneshwar in a Bin Laden beard, call him “The Fundamentalist,” and make him the most insulting (to our intelligence) wrestling villain ever. To up the ante, Olson wants Macedonio to dress in bandoliers and a cheesy mustache, call himself “Che Chavez Castro,” and play the part of our Muslim terrorist outlaw’s mouthpiece and manager.
Our guys go along with Olson’s scheme, and to their horror, The Fundamentalist becomes the hottest character in recent pro wrestling memory. Just like that, Macedonio’s idealistic vision — of wrestling as a metaphor for America’s greatness, of the potential he sees in bringing something authentically cool into the ring — is turned on its head and painted in gaudy, sickly colors. And to make things worse, Vigneshwar flouts his disdain for the entire enterprise, but his acts of defiance are subsumed into The Fundamentalist’s narrative and only serve to add to his success (for a time).
Macedonio comes to the painful realization that his beloved wrestling (and his country) operates like an all-consuming machine, rather than living up to his ideals — the reality of the situation shatters his idealism, but enriches him in the process. The most appalling aspect of what he learns is that his own narrative — one of purity and resonance, an unbroken line from his childhood living room to the spotlit ring — is essentially irrelevant. What matters is what sells, and the Everett Olsons of the world hold the keys to the store.
It’s to the credit of this Thomas W. Jones, II-directed production that Diaz’s powerful script is at no time rendered as a didactic tale of squashed dreams. Instead, we see Macedonio’s lofty ideals thoroughly trodden upon amid spectacle, flash, and mat-shaking take-downs, through a series of short matches. (William Borea good-naturedly portrays a series of brawny dudes who end up splayed on the mat.) We know what we’re seeing is wrong, but we also can’t deny the fact that it is very fun.
And we don’t mind at all when Macedonio gets his conditional revenge; Rodriguez has given us such an open, brainy, and passionate performance that he amply makes the case for his wrestler’s hope for something, anything, that might live up to the purity of those long-ago mornings spent playing with action figures. We all love flash, and we certainly love a winner. But what sustains us is the intersection between our hearts, our heads, and a yearning to get through this life with some truth and dignity. The wrestler Chad Deity cares little for these things, but the play that depicts him delivers them in abundance.
About the author: Quinton Skinner is the author of the novels 14 Degrees Below Zero and Amnesia Nights, as well as non-fiction books on music and parenting. He has written extensively on Twin Cities theater in local and national publications. He lives in Minneapolis.