ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

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

“The Mace” (back, Tony Sancho) watches the elaborate entrance of fellow THE wrestling association wrestler “Chad Deity” (center, Beethovan Oden) in the Bay Area Premiere of Kristoffer Diaz’s “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” at Aurora Theatre Company through September 30, 2012. Photo: David Allen

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.

Mace (left, Tony Sancho) and VP (right, Nasser Khan), dressed as their wrestling alter egos “Che Chavez Castro” and “The Fundamentalist,” defeat Billy Heartland (center, Dave Maier) in the Bay Area Premiere of “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.” Photo: David Allen

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

September 6, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Aurora Theatre Company’s “Salomania” deftly explores Maud Allan’s sensationalized 1918 libel trial with many modern day parallels, extended through July 29, 2012

My introduction to the acclaimed Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley came last Wednesday when I attended Salomania by playwright and director Mark Jackson.  The play had its world premiere on June 15, 2012 and has been so popular that its run was extended through Sunday, July 29, 2012.  Aurora has been on my radar for some time.  I’ve admired the bold artwork on their posters and postcards.  Having interviewed two graphic artists this year—Paul Davis and Michael Schawb—who specialize in posters, I’ve come to appreciate the complexity of communicating a visual message that causes people to take note.  Aurora does that.  Its Salomania poster, created by Daniel Olmstead, features a graceful dancer in silhouette against an exploding blue field that is dominated by a squadron of black fighter planes—imparting feelings of lightness about to be overshadowed by ominous doom.  That fits the play to a T.

Salomania explores the scandalous libel suit that the celebrated dancer Maud Allan filed against arch conservative British MP, Noel Pemberton-Billing in 1918, during the bleaker days of WWI. Pemberton-Billing’s newspaper, “TheVigilante,” had run a highly-sensationalist article, “The Cult of the Clitoris,” accusing her of being a lesbian, sadist, and German sympathizer.   His evidence?  She had played the title role in a private production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, which was banned in England at the time.  Allan, a San Francisco native, was a dancer who took Europe by storm in the early 1900’s with her version of the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” which she called “The Vision of Salomé.” She became notoriously known as “The Salomé Dancer.”  The article was bate, meant to goad Allan into filing a libel suit so that Billing and his American cohort, Harold Spencer, could whip up the populace by disclosing the contents of a spurious “Black Book” that claimed that 47,000 leading British citizens were perverts and were being blackmailed into aiding Germany and thereby prolonging the war.  While soldiers continued to fight and die in the mud of France, people back home read the latest on the salacious events of the trial.  “How could I resist making a play about that?” said Mark Jackson.

Maud Allan (Madeline H.D. Brown) performs a scandalous dance in the World Premiere of “Salomania,” at the Aurora Theatre through July 29, 2012. Photo: David Allen

Like most good stories, it came to Jackson unexpectedly.  In the course of researching Aurora’s acclaimed 2006 production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, he came across the transcripts of the libel trial and found an eager supporter in Aurora’s Artistic Director, Tom Ross, with whom he had previously worked.  Ross commissioned the play. 

Salomania is challenging, engrossing, sobering and, at times, delightful.  It’s as much about the past as it about today too. The story resonates with issues that have proved timeless—lack of good judgment in the face of blatant media manipulation, freedom of expression, homophobia, and intolerance.   

Madeline H.D. Brown sublimely embodies Maud Allan, at times she appears to dance on air as she wafts across the stage exuding sensuality, strength, intelligence and rolling with the emotional punches she is dealt.  Costume designer Callie Floor is to be commended for creating stunning replicas of Allan’s original daring and diaphanous costumes and the remarkable period costumes that the other characters wear.  Mark Anderson Phillips brings the homophobic Pemberton-Billing to life, while Kevin Clarke humorously portrays the effeminate Judge Darling and the aged and frail Oscar Wilde.

The most memorable scenes are two intimate vignettes in which the characters divulge their dreams and dashed hopes and emotionally involve us in their inner world.  Marilee Talkington shines as a nameless girl in bar, recently widowed, who is sharing an evening and a pint with a soldier, played by Alex Moggridge. (Talkington also doubles as Maud Allan’s friend and lover, Margot Asquith.)  And towards the play’s end, I couldn’t get enough of Kevin Clarke as an aged Oscar Wilde in conversation with the defeated Maud Adams.

There’s enough rich material here for several plays: the courtroom and combat scenes are acted with flair and poignancy and the behind-the-scenes discussions at the newspaper fascinating, but they all remain largely on the surface.  This would be countered if we came away with the feeling that we had a grip on the real Maud Allan.  As it stands, we just don’t know enough about her inner world to get a solid handle on who she really was deep inside.  This is critical given Allan’s lawsuit sought to address her tarnished public image and who and what she wasn’t.   If Jackson can deliver more Maud, he’ll have a  play with real lasting power.

Run-time: Two hours and thirty-five minutes

Cast: Madeline H.D. Brown is Maud Adams; Mark Anderson Phillips is Noel Pemberton-Billing, Alex Moggridge is Ellis William Hume-Williams; Liam Vincent is Lord Alfred Douglas; Anthony Nemirovsky is The Honorable Justice Wills; Marilee Talkington is Margot Asquith; and Kevin Clarke is Oscar Wilde.

Production Team: Written and Directed by Mark Jackson; Choreography by Chris Black; Scenery by Nina Ball; Costumes by Callie Floor; Lighting by Heather Basarab; Sound by Matt Stines; Props by Mia Baxter.

WRITER AND DIRECTOR MARK JACKSON BEHIND THE SCENES OF “SALOMANIA” AT AURORA THEATRE COMPANY

Details:  For mature audiences only.  Salomania runs through Sunday July 29, 2012 with performances on Sunday, July 22, 2012 at 2 PM and 7 PM; Thursday, July 26, 2012 at 8 PM; Saturday, July 28, 2012 at 8PM; and Sunday, July 29, 2012 at 2 PM.   The Aurora Theatre Company is located at 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley.  There are several parking garages near the theatre.  Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, accessible via Center Street, has $3 parking with a validated theatre ticket. (Stamp is in the theatre lobby.)  Tickets: $30-$48.

For more information, or to purchase tickets:  www.auroratheatre.org or phone (510) 843-4822.

July 22, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment