The title character of Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is the face of professional wrestling. He’s got the physique, the gleaming teeth, the strut. And charisma? “Hey,” he boasts, “charisma OWES Chad Deity!”
He’s living the American Dream: “One of the most profound expressions of the ideals of this nation!” He makes soldiers “remember what they’re fighting for” and gives proof through the night that “the flag is still there.” His myriad fans hang on his every word, even when he meanders about raisin bread or the crispers in his fridge.
Deity — even the name’s a hoot — comes off as a cross between world-famous TV wrestlers the Rock and Hulk Hogan: the Rock, for his epic swagger and Hollywood-sized smile; and Hogan because, like the legendary Hulkster, Chad Deity can’t wrestle a lick.
He needs help. Someone must “sell” his power slams and contorted suplexes and make the “unbelievably untalented” be the star.
Enter Macedonio “Mace” Guerra. The self-confessed “charisma-challenged wrestler” doesn’t just have his dream job; pro wrestling’s his “daydream” job. He’s wanted it since childhood. He knows all the moves, a true artist, in fact. And what he does best is growl and grunt and wince in pseudo-pain and make Chad Deity — stiffer than any action figure — perform like a god.
Okay, so Mace is a “jobber to the stars,” and his boss takes him for granted. So he’s the anti-hero, booed around the world. Mace is happy. What he does is “just as essential as Chad Deity.” They’re a team.
They work for THE Wrestling, the most popular TV program on Monday night — which is a dead ringer for the WWE’s Monday Night Raw. Turning wrestlers into larger-than-life cartoon characters, WWE packs the country’s largest arenas with rabid fans (a friend insists: “Wanna see the U.S. of A. for real? Watch WWE!”).
The playwright has obviously watched it, too. And has become appalled by the racism and stereotyping that often underpins it. The key to the show: forget good and evil; whatever incites volcanic audience reactions is what works. Ratings will follow.
In some ways Mace’s friend Vigneshwar Paduar resembles Chad Deity. “VP” hasn’t Clue One about wrestling. But the Indian-American, who speaks four languages, has innate charisma and attitude for days. The question becomes: how to get him on THE Wrestling?
He can’t be bland, or in-between. Gray doesn’t play on TV. So, the boss, Everett K. Olson (i.e., WWE’s Vince McMahon) concocts an “axis of evil”: the invidious team of a “militant, cave-dwelling Fundamentalist” (VP) and “Che Chavez Castro,” a menagerie of Latino stereotypes (Mace). After VP wins their first match, the boss screams, “They’ll hate you,” which in pro wrestling is “the best news you can hear.”
The WWE fills Madison Square Garden. Ion Theatre, whose intimate BLKBOX space is one-fifth the size of a basketball court, somehow replicates the outsized dimensions of the original, and gets them, and Diaz’s “serious-minded comedy,” just right.
Stephen Lone, outstanding as Mace, tells an unsubtle story that, in subtle ways, resembles A Chorus Line. Dressed as a blend between Mighty Mouse and Superman (excellent costumes by Mary Summerday), Lone crafts a multilayered portrait. Like the chorus, he lives for what he does, even if it means overlooking the glitz and, for Mace, the nagging sense that there’s just one American Dream.
Vimel Sephus makes Chad Deity a testosterone-jacked grappler, on the surface, but also someone who knows the business-end of the enterprise: “good” is high ratings and tweets trending worldwide; “evil,” everything else.
Lighting guru Karin Filijan creates impressive effects throughout, but saves her best for Chad Deity’s most elaborate entrance: fireworks explode on his chest.
Except for Everett K. Olson, whom Jake Rosko makes pompously funny, Deity and the other characters have something more inside. Keala Milles — an antsy, edgy VP — articulates it for the others, who either choose to accept it or stay their course.
Diaz, whose Welcome to Arroyo appeared at the Old Globe in 2010, has written a slyly complicated play. Amid the blazing satire, there’s also a persistent respect for art and compassion for those trapped in colliding circumstances.
Even his take on pro wrestling’s open-ended. One of the best parts at Ion: how well the actors replicate the blunt physicality of the sport. At one point Evan Kendig, who plays various take-a-fall guys, gets choke-slammed to the mat for real — wincingly real. It’s a reminder that though TV matches can be predetermined, wrestlers still must convince audiences that the blows aren’t phony. At the same time, as a character says, they must “take care of the guy you’re in the ring with.”
Another reminder, during the world premiere in Chicago, an actor broke a rib.
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, by Kristoffer Diaz
Ion Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest
Directed by Catalina Maynard and Claudio Raygoza; cast: Stephen Lone, Vimel Sephus, Jake Rosko, Keala Milles, Evan Kendig; scenic design, Raygoza; costumes, Mary Summerday; lighting, Karin Filijan; sound, Evan Kendig, James Dirks; fight choreography, Southern California Wrestling
Playing through November 16; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4:00 p.m. 619-600-4020