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Mirroring my own ambivalence to the spectacle, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is both an exposé of and an ode to professional wrestling. While deconstructing the fakeries of pro wrestling and examining its crude nationalistic stereotypes, playwright Kristoffer Diaz gives a set of skilled actors ample opportunities to demonstrate the spectacle’s glorious action – and for narrator Macedonio Guerra, to extol his livelihood as an art form. Enriching the entertainment of the current Carolina Actors Studio Theatre production, Artistic Director Michael R. Simmons drapes the show in live videography, fog effects, the company’s customary lobby makeover, and a wrestling undercard that’s already in progress as we enter the theater. If the ring itself is small and primitive by HD pay-per-view standards, it’s true to the seedy atmosphere I remember long ago when I saw Bobo Brazil battle Blackjack Mulligan at Township Auditorium in Columbia, South Carolina. A famous painting by George Bellows, Both Members of This Club, could have served as the inspiration for this sweaty tawdriness.
Much of the exposition in Act 1 and the build-up to the climax in Act 2 is based on the dubious premise that the superstars of the sport must rely on the nameless losers – their hapless partners in the ring – to sustain the illusion that they can actually wrestle. This premise remains plausible enough when Mace spars with the Apollo Creed-like Chad Deity, whose entrances are indeed elaborate, inundated with fog, flanked by a bikini-clad entourage, and festooned with showers of confetti and dollar bills. Mace’s importance remains obvious as he recruits and coaches Vineshwar Paduar, an Indian wonder boy who quickly rises in the wrestling firmament to a position where, as VP, he is set to challenge Deity (née Darnell) for the championship of the world. The pivotal importance of the patsy chimes with what I remember of Saturday morning wrestling TV shows, a cavalcade of swift 10-minute bouts (demolitions, really) that serve as platforms for the winners to vaunt, vent their anger at their rivals, and help the promoter attract a paying audience to an evening of fabulous clashes between the stars. Of course, Mace’s premise – the patsy’s indispensability – breaks down whenever the perpetual loser disappears from the equation and the mighty wrestling superstars have no one to rely upon but each other when they clash, staging epic hour-long battles before their screaming, maniacal fans.
If it’s fair to say that Diaz is distorting pro wrestling, it’s also legitimate to observe that he’s emulating it, engaging in the same sort of audacious myth-making that is the cornerstone of every two-bit and big-time wrestling outfit in the universe. But there is plenty of truth in the mix – and authentic skill. Diaz manages to distill the world of wrestling into a story that requires only five actors. The myth-making dimension of the script becomes deliciously manifest when T.H.E. Wrestling promoter Everett K. Olson (EKO) introduces the combatants, a hyperbolic ragout that is equally vague about the hometowns of the wrestlers and their weight. That gives Simmons and other Deity directors some welcome latitude in casting. Well-sculpted as he is, J.R. Jones is hardly the titan we would expect to portray Chad, and Denny Valentin, playing the challenger VP, is so diminutive that we’re verging on absurdity. Costumes, designed by Erin Amelia White, matter a lot, for they allow VP to transform before our eyes from a street hustler into a mystical Arabian terror and for Deity to radiate his regality.
The uncredited wrestling training and fight choreography are superb, blocked for maximum credibility. I was especially impressed with VP’s signature kick – the sound of his kick was always perfectly synchronized with its feigned impact and the wrestlers always found a diagonal angle that would make the blow believable to a maximum number of spectators. The undercard match, refereed by Josh Lucero with Anthony Brooks wrestling against Mace, had that good-vs.-evil tang that is the hallmark of old-time pro grappling, with Mace donning an ornate mask reminiscent of the heyday of Mil Máscaras. Everything goes just as smoothly when this weighty comedy begins, a tribute to the principals’ acting and athletic talents. Jones exudes smiling, cunning arrogance as Chad Deity, navigating the mean moments and, with equal aplomb, the moments when the champ relies on his business acumen to make his next move. Valentin’s portrait of the streetwise spellbinder/hustler Paduar is two shades more realistic than the evil and nefarious VP, a perfect calibration of the two disparate personalities.
Between these two rivals, who seem to aggravate each other nearly as much when they aren’t playing to the TV cameras, is Michael Smallwood as Mace – narrator, patsy, agent, mediator, and coach with a realistic, sometimes surprising story arc that is far more important to us than the VP-Deity rivalry. Smallwood has that lumpish nondescript quality that chimes with Mace’s lack of celebrity, yet he charms us with his long chunks of autobiographical narrative, occasionally schmoozing the audience while the other personalities draw the spotlight. Mace doesn’t lose all the matches. With more charisma than Mace, Dominic Weaver takes his lumps in three colorful guises, including cowboy Billy Heartland and flag-waving Old Glory.
Still, the clincher for me was Robert Paolino as EKO. With graying slicked-back hair, wielding a cigar in a loud and vulgar dinner jacket, Paolino becomes the ultimate bigshot sleazeball, an ignorant-yet-crafty genius of a promoter who is forever mercenary and unpredictable. Notwithstanding his bigoted Neanderthal mindset, he’s an object of supreme fascination. Like Deity, it’s hard to take your eyes away from him. Together they both personify the crassness of professional wrestling, delivering wave after wave of guilty pleasures with an artistry that cannot be denied.
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity continues its run through Saturday, March 23. For more information on this production, please view the sidebar.