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The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity

30 Apr

America, Home of the Camel Clutch or Action Figures With Multiple Points of Articulation
This is more of a “notes on” than a full review of Kristoffer Diaz’s Pulitzer short-listed The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity at Mixed Blood Theatre, as the show closes this weekend, and so I doubt that this will sway anyone either way. Plus, I am going to have spoilers throughout, because I don’t think I can talk about the final impact of the play without talking about the ending, and I don’t really feel like going over the particulars of the plot.

Here are some things you should know right off the bat. It’s a play about wrestling and wrestling is scripted entertainment and not sport, so wrestling and theatre go pretty well hand in hand. Gerardo Rodriguez, playing the wrestler Macedonio Guerra, known in the ring as Mace, is an engaging and personable narrator. His opening monologue about being 11 and watching wrestling while eating “generic flakes of corn with generic spoonfuls of sugar” in his underwear is a well constructed poignancy of bootstraps success. That sharply written backstory fuels his love of his job, even though he is the little guy going nowhere fast- he’s a good wrestler who puts up with all sorts of injustices and slights to stay in the community he loves. His mantra, whenever Everett K. Olson, owner of “The Wrestling” (Edwin Strout, in full blustering American businessman mode) goes off on some exploitative misguided tangent, is “I don’t mention it.” It’s a refrain that builds up to the final scenes and given the capitulation that occurs in the last scene, feels like it should be the theme for the show.

Ansa Akeya, playing the titular wrestler, is a built dude who looks good wearing gold lamé underpants and spends the show chewing up the scenery. Seriously, slavering and sweating and drooling all over the set, and he’s pretty funny. Billy Blaze, an actual wrestler who plays several minor characters including All-American heroes like “Billy Heartland” and “Ol’ Glory” is really sweet and genuine, especially as he’s a guy who has actually dealt with the feeling of community that binds Mace to his job. Rounding out the cast is Shalin Agarwal as Vigneshwar Paduar, known as VP, a Brooklynite whose family hails from India, multi-lingual lothario who gets talked into being a wrestler by Mace, who sees VP’s sales skills as his ticket to something bigger. Unfortunately, that something bigger is a full-blown orgy of stereotyping casting Macedonio and VP as anti-American arch-nemeses Che Chavez Castro (from my mouth and Mace’s, “Seriously?”) and the supposedly Middle Eastern fighter, The Fundamentalist.

Lots of cultural stereotyping gets flung around the stage, most of it played for comic effect and that’s one of the things that feels off. All the actors seem to be having a good time with their parts; the irony doesn’t carry. At one point Mace is trying to justify taking on the business of The Wrestling by playing off the stereotypes and he talks contemptuously about a line in the sand for Chad Deity to cross. It’s enough to make you wish that some of the contempt had been aimed at stereotyping itself, instead of feeling goofy. Chad Deity draws a line in the sand that Chad Deity does not cross.

It should shock more, but it doesn’t feel like a revelation. Watching Chad Deity I didn’t feel like I was being told anything new. Marketers manipulate history and play on nationalistic tendencies in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator and turn a profit? They sure do. People go along with that in order to be a part of that profit-turning? You bet. So where is, as the Chicago Tribune put it, the “visceral take-down of the way American marketers manipulate our jingoistic tendencies, a hilariously savvy exploration of racial and class-based stereotyping”? What I saw on stage was essentially an exploded caricature, which is not the same as a satire or a skewering. As Mace points out several times, the vaguely Middle Eastern arch-enemy has been done before, the Iron Sheik of 80s fame. Rohan Preston mentioned in his review that he was disappointed that there was no examination of the stereotype of the black violent athlete, and none of these things get really explored- the stereotypes are just thrown up against eachother at the insistence of Everett K Olson (a.k.a. EKO) and with the willing participation of VP and Mace.

Also troubling, is that the writing itself becomes looser and sketchier as the show progresses. Lines ranged from pandering (“The Fundamentalist hates Joe Mauer!”) to large social and international issues boiled down to tossed off lines (“BRIC! Brazil, Russia, India, China! Read Fareed Zakaria!”). When Mace finally confronts EKO and Deity over his building concerns, the scene is a well-choreographed wrestling scene, a physical burst, but the writing is a litany of “And I mention…” over and over again, which some traditional part of me wants to be more fully fleshed out in words. Mace has been telling us these things all along, now say them to EKO, already. The scene owes a lot to a film montage and voiceover, which is visually impressive but still felt hollow.

More troubling, is EKO’s response- that they should just sell that passion and love of the sport. So they do, and then Mace loses in the ring to Chad Deity to maintain the business franchise. All of which strikes me as a terribly disheartening capitulation- is Diaz saying that if you truly believe in something, you should continue to prostrate it in front of the existing powers? As VP watches on TV, the girl he is watching with asks why they are “cheering the bad guy,” referring to Deity, but this is too subtle a point to end on for a play that is about and has been such an overly bombastic spectacle.

It’s also hard not to think of Mickey Rourke and The Wrestler while watching Chad Deity. Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” is also a man with a love and respect for the work, for the community which makes people depend on each other and gives the audience the thrill of connection. Darren Aronofsky does something more visceral though with The Ram- whereas Mace tosses of the line that there will never be real conflict in American wrestling because “America can’t appear to be vulnerable”, The Ram shows a country already in decline, held together by that same desire for community that drives Mace but through The Ram, is brutally aware of it and his limitations. Diaz is trying to push the edges of our tolerance of stereotyping and what we’ll accept, but sitting in the audience at Mixed Blood, it didn’t feel like being all that different from being in the crowd at an arena, unquestioningly cheering on Hulk Hogan against the Iron Sheik.

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