review: Aurora Theatre Company opens its 21st season with the Bay Area Premiere of “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” inviting the Berkeley audience to get primal over wrestling
Professional wrestling, of course, is a sham—scripted right down to the last pulsating peck. Still, there’s something primordial and bizarrely addictive about watching muscle-bound superheroes in spandex groan, grunt and holler as they pummel each other with drop kicks, flying body presses, and other daredevil maneuvers. The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, by Obie Award winner Kristoffer Diaz, had its Bay Area premiere at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company last week. The play is a fun, clever and engrossing satire bringing us right into the colorful the world of professional wrestling and its stock-in-trade characters. Friday night’s performance was electric, offering the audience, a few of whom came dressed in costume, a chance to amp up and cut loose as they entered an epic battle of good versus evil in the ring. And what a ring it was! Set designer Nina Ball outdid herself transforming Aurora’s intimate three-quarter round house into a convincing professional wrestling ring surrounded by colorful lights and elevated platforms where the wrestlers posed. A pre-show warm-up round with wrestler Billy Heartland (Dave Maier) gave the audience a tutorial on how to re-act to each of the characters— with cheering, heckling or chanting. Heartland even pulled a woman from the audience up into the ring to assist him. She did so well that I wondered if she was a plant. Two mammoth video screens provided riveting close-ups of the wrestling, sexy go-go girls (the only females in this play) and projected introductory videos of each character—a very skillful collaboration of light, sound and video from Aurora’s talented team. It was just like being in Vegas and taking in the real deal—skin and a lot of adrenaline flowing.
The story’s narrator is Macedonio Guerra aka “the Mace” (Tony Sancho), a young Puerto Rican professional wrestler who is the fall-guy for the star, “Chad Deity.” Sancho gives an impassioned and edgy performance as a man who’s smarting from a career that didn’t pan out as anticipated who is struggling to find meaning in his life and to see his own value. Sancho’s Macedonio speaks like a cultural anthropologist, explaining not only what’s going on in his head but the whole culture of wrestling invoking a series of fascinating connections and intersections. As he describes how he was drawn to wresting in his childhood and walks us through his moves that enable the hero, we begin to understand that wrestling requires stamina, physical skill and the ability to let oneself be used and demeaned, as a pawn in a ratings game. The burning question: how could someone this astute settle for being someone’s fall guy?
The reigning All-American hero, Chad Deity (Beethovan Oden) is served up as beefcake— a flashy black man sporting gold hair and tight spandex who preens, struts, grunts, and wins. He’s reached the pinnacle of success in wresting. He sports a prodigiously large belt buckle, gets the big salary and he spends lavishly but he doesn’t really do the work. That is left to little noticed and less appreciated Macedonio, who jumps to make it look like the burly Chad is lifting him in the air. Chad is Olson’s satirical nod to the successful, or not, assimilation of blacks in our society. Oddly, the most memorable line Chad Deity delivers comes during his riff on the money he has and what it’s bought—giant refrigerators with multiple crispers that he doesn’t even use. His young son has refrigerator in his playroom and he uses that crisper to keep his action heroes cold. There’s a lot about Chad Deity that we just don’t know and will never know. And the playwright doesn’t provide us with a lot of backstory or insight to humanize these characters beyond the silly roles they play.
Their promoter and employer, the greasy Everett K. “EKO” Olson (Rod Gnapp), founder of the circuit called THE Wrestling, milks the cash-cow for all its worth and is constantly seeking to stir the pot, raise the stakes and hook the crowd.
The fight physicality is impressive and authentic. The wrestlers’ moves—attacks and throws—are all choreographed by Dave Maier and went off without a hitch, creating the impression that pain was inflicted with each resounding thud, kick or twist of the limb. (A video below includes segments of the actors talking about their intense preparation for this demanding production.)
When Macedonio recruits Vigneshwar Paduar (Nasser Khan), the wrestling script changes. VK is a young man of Indian descent from Brooklyn, who has dark skin, and could easily pass as having any number of racial backgrounds. EKO first trots him out as a Latino and then embellishes him with a long beard, a white robe and recasts him as “The Fundamentalist,” a villain Muslim, who along with his sidekick, Mace, is out to destroy the American hero Chad Deity. Khan’s character was the least well-developed in the show, even though the actor made the most of the lines he was given and got some good laughs with his polyglot high-jinks. Is he a visionary or just a cynical kid who wants to make some quick money? I couldn’t tell.
The ah-hah moment comes as Mace gets fed up with EKO and hooks up with VK in a rebellion that ultimately fizzles. At the abrupt end of play, we are left high from the cheering and jeering that we’ve engaged in for 2 hours and with great compassion for Macedonio in particular. His intellect and insight seemed key to his escaping his demeaning role. I had the unsettling feeling of not being altogether clear about what it was all supposed to mean.
As part of the theatre audience who is also the wrestling audience, we are essentially watching ourselves watching the spectacle and co-creating the spectacle and that’s fascinating. From that vantage point, there’s no escaping the powerful scripted stereotypes that limit and entrap those in wrestling, and all realms of our society, that we perpetuate.
Production team: written by Kristoffer Diaz; directed by Jon Tracy; set design Nina Ball; costumes Magie Whitaker, sound design by Cliff Caruthers, lighting design by Kurt Landisman, video design by Jim Gross
Cast: Rod Gnapp as promoter EKO (or E.K. Olson), Tony Sancho as wrestler “The Mace” or Macedonio Guerra, Beethovan Oden as wrestler Chad Diety, Dave Maier as wrestler Billy Heartland, and Nasser Khan as wrestler VP or Vigneshwar Paduar
Behind the Scenes of THE ELABORATE ENTRANCE OF CHAD DEITY at Aurora Theatre Company
Details: The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity runs through September 30, 2012. Performances: Tuesdays at 7pm; Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm; Sundays at 2pm and 7pm. The Aurora Theatre is located at 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.
TICKETS: Tickets are $32-50, with half-off tickets for Under 30, student, and group discounts; phone (510) 843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org. Parking: paid parking is readily available at over 5 parking garages as close as one block from the theatre. The Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, between Milvia and Shattuck, offers $3 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM, or, all day on Saturday or Sunday when your garage-issued parking ticket is validated in the theatre lobby.
Performances with talks/groups:
Friday Forum: Friday, September 14, 2012 – Political Correctness for Life
Script Club: Monday,September 24, 2012 7:30pm – The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe by Jane Wagner
Wicked Wisdom: Friday, September 28, 2012 – Seeing the Truth in the Ring