Chad Deity (Beethovan Oden, right) pummels The Bad Guy (Dave Maier) in the Bay Area Premiere of Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity. BELOW: Wrestling promoter EKO (Rod Gnapp, center) lays out his version of the American dream to VP (Nasser Khan, rear left) and The Mace (Tony Sancho). Photos by David Allen
In professional wrestling, we’re told, you can’t kick a guy’s ass without the help of the guy whose ass you’re kicking. Talk about a democracy! Perhaps there’s more to learn from the gaudy world of professional wrestling than we thought.
Playwright Kristoffer Diaz, a self-confessed fan of the fake-out body slams and outsize characters of the pro-wrestling world, seems to think there’s an allegorical relationship between that world and the United States, especially when it comes to racism and the exploitation of labor in the name of almighty capitalism. His play The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity opens the Aurora Theatre Company’s 21st season (or 21st “anniversary” season as the pre-show announcement puts it – why is 21 years an anniversary?).
There’s certainly truth in advertising with this play – it’s incredibly elaborate, and director Jon Tracy’s production is enormous. Imagine a wrestling ring (not regulation size), towering video screens and elaborate rock concert-style lighting surrounding the Aurora’s intimate 150-seat theater. Set designer Nina Ball, lighting designer Kurt Landisman and sound designer Cliff Caruthers have done a remarkable job re-creating the garish arena of fictional operation THE Wrestling in the dignified Aurora space. This is an immersive experience, and that’s part of the fun. Before the show, Dave Maier, the fight director and the guy who plays wrestlers The Bad Guy, Billy Heartland and Old Glory, comes out in his good ol’ buy Billy Heartland guise to train us theatrical types how to behave like wrestling types, which is to say we’re coached to boo the bad guy, chant “champ, champ, champ” whenever Chad Deity comes into the ring and salute and bark “sir, yes sir!” when Old Glory makes his dramatic entrance rappelling from the ceiling.
Knowing what our role is, the play begins in earnest – and it is an earnest play with something to say about the corrosive power of stereotypes and the never-ending smackdown of the little man in corporate America. The central character is Macedonio “The Mace” Guerra (Tony Sancho), one of the most important guys in the wrestling world because he makes the superstars look good. He’s the character without the character, the highly trained and skilled acrobat/actor who makes it look like the inept big-name wrestlers (like Chad Deity, played with appropriate bluster and grit by Beethovan Oden) look like they know what they’re doing.
In his revealing monologues, beautifully delivered by the charming Sancho, Mace tells us he’s pretty happy with his lot in life. He has loved wrestling since he was kid watching it on Saturday morning TV, and he makes a good living, even if he is smarter, more articulate and more sensitive than most of the other guys in the room. He fully recognizes that pro-wrestling guru Everett K. “EKO” Olson (Rod Gnapp) utilizes racial stereotypes to rile up his audiences, but he bites his tongue and does what is asked of him.
When Mace hears about a Brooklyn hip-hop kid of Indian descent who talks a good game, his mind starts spinning with possibilities and introduces the kid, Vigneshwar “VP” Paduar (Nasser Khan) to his bosses. Promoter EKO immediately sees possibilities in the new kid’s brown skin and turns him into “The Fundamentalist,” a bearded, Osama-like wrestler (who, by the way, can’t even begin to wrestle), whose primary function is to enrage the audience and goad Chad Deity.
The play’s trajectory, which isn’t all that convincing, has Mace rising above skeeviest parts of the wrestling world. If the play’s conclusion lacks emotional heft, it sure is a lot of fun. The bulk of the actual wrestling happens in Act 2, and it’s fantastic to be able to watch it all so close up. The big noisy body slams and power bombs are great, but the most effective moments are actually those in slow motion (as when one of Maier’s wrestlers suffers one of The Fundamentalist’s super kicks known as “The Sleeper Cell”). All the flash of the production is fun, too, especially the video screens full of busty ladies in bikinis with wrestlers opening beer cans on their chests and the like (video design by Jim Gross).
This is a very different kind of show for the Aurora, and that’s fantastic. Some companies open their seasons with a bang (see Berkeley Rep’s Chinglish). The Aurora opens its season with a theatrical ass-whoopin’, but that’s OK. They have full permission from the smiling audience to whoop its collective ass.
I interviewed busy Bay Area fight director Dave Maier about his work on The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity continues through Sept. 30 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.