By now, audiences are probably used to Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s talent for pushing the envelope, but nothing can prepare them for a Speedo-clad actor getting body-slammed a few feet away during an impassioned monologue. In Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, a jaded pro wrestler offers a clear-eyed ode to the squared circle, recounting boyhood dreams, backroom deals, finishing moves, and a multi-cultural vision of the American Dream.
Wrestler Macedonio “Mace” Guerra, played with surprising pathos by Jose Joaquin Perez, guides the audience through his turbulent career as a member of the fictional “THE” Wrestling League. Guerra entered the league with idealistic notions of honor, pure athleticism, and uplifting cultural impact, but he soon became trapped by hard realities of glory hogs and damaging, money-driven stereotypes.
A ringside collaboration with his charismatic, streetwise friend VP starts as an innocent way to introduce a positive multi-ethnic narrative to the wrestling ring. Although they begin with the best intentions, their character arc quickly devolves into a nightmarish, jingoistic farce that severely tests their friendship, accepted notions of good taste, and Mace’s already taxed conscience.
The first act plays out almost like a long monologue by Mace, interrupted occasionally by cameos from his bombastic boss EKO (Michael Russotto), Hulk Hogan-like superstar Chad Deity (Shawn T. Andrews), and friend VP (Adi Hanash). Mace brings the audience up to speed on his childhood obsession with wrestling and his adult issues within the industry leading up to the play’s climactic events. Perez proves a charming narrator, dropping insider references for wrestling aficionados while bringing neophytes into the fold with his affable, self-effacing style.
No matter how great Perez’s appeal and abilities, the first act often bogs down when Mace is left alone onstage for too long, highlighting the need for minor adjustments by director John Vreeke. The supporting cast frequently offer subversive comedy gold, but they are stuck as occasional guest stars in Mace’s memories. Increased stage time for the able supporting players or a slimming of some of Mace’s longer monologues might buoy the first act energy whenever it threatens to flag.
If the first act is the “tell”, then the second act is most definitely the “show”. The theater patrons are treated to a whole new beast after returning from intermission, with heaps of full-throttle wrestling action. Flanked by Jared Mezzochi’s eerie projections, Colin K. Bills’ atmospheric lighting, and Christopher Baine’s booming soundtrack, the audience is sucked into an arena ripped out of Pay Per View. Misha Kachman’s sneaky, jaw dropping set design completes the illusion. The cheeky satire of the first act morphs into something darker as the wrestlers stop throwing words and start throwing power bombs, clotheslines, and folding chairs. Tensions reach a boiling point as Mace’s patience and loyalty to the THE organization are stretched to their limits.
The incredible physicality demanded of Perez, Hanash, Andrews, and the chameleonic James Long in the second act adds an undeniable “wow” factor to their performances. Their agile moves and muscle-bound physiques display a total commitment to training, in addition to their primary acting challenges. As assistant fight choreographer and resident wrestling pro, unsung hero Long uses his WWE experience and comedy background to make his cast mates look good. He sells every fake kick, punch, and chokehold like he’s been beaten within an inch of his life, flopping around like a gasping fish to the delight of the audience.
As eponymous THE champion Chad Deity, Shawn T. Andrews throws playful jabs at American celebrity worship, smiling broadly, speaking puzzlingly in third person, and posing for the cameras. His swaggering stage persona recalls The Rock at the peak of his powers. Occasionally Chad’s commentary veers away from satirical into the realm of supremely weird, but Andrews just flashes a Hollywood grin, undaunted by the momentary awkwardness.
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity
Closes Sept 30, 2012
Woolly Mammoth Theatre
641 D Street NW
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $35 – $52
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Meanwhile, Michael Russotto simultaneously evokes WWE bigwig Vince McMahon and Glenn Beck as cynical THE manager “EKO”. EKO believes everything is fair game in the quest for ratings, and I mean everything. The veteran Russotto pulls off the difficult trick of remaining likeable despite his profane manner and race baiting marketing ploys.
Adi Hanash’s performance as VP is spirited yet stilted. Maybe it’s the unfamiliar image of an Indian small business heir rapping in baggy jeans and gold chains, but VP’s street lingo refuses to flow naturally from Hanash’s mouth. The forced dialogue makes Hanash seem uncomfortable in his own skin, which in turn complicates his ultimate desire to just be “himself” in the ring. Still, Hanash should be commended for diving headfirst into such a conflicted character.
The play’s timing and message are eerily relevant to our current political and cultural flashpoint. In the darkest corners of the internet and elements of the mainstream media, one can glimpse the glowing embers of EKO’s xenophobic slogans. With Mace’s final outburst, playwright Diaz skewers the false dilemmas of “Real America Vs. Fake America” and “America Vs. The World”, nesting a fight for the soul of our nation within a slam bang wrestling match.
Despite the first act pitfalls, on balance The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity emerges as a thrilling spectacle that nails most of its lofty goals with edgy humor, incisive commentary, and killer super kicks.
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity by Kristoffer Diaz, directed by John Vreeke. Featuring Michael Russotto (A Bright New Boise, House of Gold, Full Circle), Jose Joaquin Perez (Oedipus el Rey), Shawn T. Andrew, Adi Hanash, and James Long. Designers: set design: Misha Kachman, lighting design: Colin K. Bills, costume design: Misha Kachman and Ivania Stack, sound design: Christopher Baine, projection design: Jared Mezzocchi, and fight choreography: Joe Isenberg. Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Reviewed by Ben Demers.
Barbara Mackay . Washington Examiner
Jennifer Perry . BroadwayWorld
Ally Behnke . PinkLineProject
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
The Theatre Gay . BrightestYoungThings
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Chris Klimek . City Paper
Gwendolyn Purdom . Washingtonian
John Glass . DramaUrge
Amanda Gunther . DCMetroTheaterArts