Ion Theatre’s current production, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity spoofs and critiques The WWE’s Monday Night Raw, the TV wrestling show with ratings through the roof.
As the playwright points out, the WWE shamelessly exploits stereotypes. Violent audience reactions are the only “good.” If some conflict “trends worldwide,” as the announcers often boast, then it works. The business determines right and wrong.
Monday nights are dark nights for theater. On the advice of a friend, an actor, I have occasionally watched the show. Sure the matches are pre-determined, and most blows land on the puncher’s wrists (always bandaged to take the punishment).
And the audience goes so mad it’s hard to tell if they’re just playing along with the comic book figures or having religious epiphanies.
The playwright’s on the mark about how the show incites the audience with negative stereotypes (in Chad Deity the villains become a Muslim fundamentalist, with a “sleeper cell kick,” and a Latino called “Che Chavez Castro”).
All true. But what also caught my eye is the epic theatricality. How do you convince a live audience of over 20,000 half-crazed Americans – and who knows how many millions watching on TV - that what they’re watching might be real?
And, when a hold misfires, actually is.
My friend doesn’t watch the wrestlers so much as the audience – waving signs, chanting slogans, like blood-lusting Romans in the Coliseum.
“These freaks VOTE,” he says, with undemocratic trepidation.
True too. But the performers are also actors, on a vast stage and in-the-round no less. They must be orators as well as athletes on top physical condition. They have to work a crowd like the slimiest politico: push buttons, sway voters (either for or against them, no matter), and keep the evening’s pace blazing.
My friend may object, but pro wrestling’s also a blunt metaphor for one of acting’s most fascinating and infinite questions: how to make an on-stage moment “work.”
It takes two. Or, as a character says in Chad Deity, “teamwork.” The hero clotheslines the villain, and the villain must not only “sell” the action, to make the hero look good, he must respond to the exact degree that the forearm strafing his neck might have hurt.
He can’t over- or under-react. That won’t play, and will evoke shouts of “fake” and “phony” (wrestling audiences are connoisseurs, in their way). The action must be a single believable unit, right now.
Chad Deity also talks about occasions when the script breaks down. A wrestler freezes or forgets his “place” and goes bazooka. His partner must somehow cover the lapse. This is the job of Macedonio “Mace” Guerra in the play. He’s an artist at it, in fact.
Watch enough theater and you develop an eye for those times when actors must do the same thing: somehow make the scene look smooth and rehearsed, even though chaos demands a cameo.
Some of the most heroic acting I’ve ever seen happens when an actor goes “up” or skips to Act Two while on page three of the script. Like Mace, who loses to make the star look good, the real actors in theater often go unnoticed as they improvise with all their heart. They not only hold a scene together, they push forward what could have fallen apart.