Woolly Mammoth goes to the mat, artfully
By Peter Marks
Thursday, September 13, 2012
Those gleaming behemoths who execute front bumps and pile drives and elbow drops aren’t merely pumped-up slabs of meat on a tape loop of fixed matches. As playwright Kristoffer Diaz avers in the often invigorating “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” the most dedicated of pro wrestling’s players are akin to artist-athletes, faithful to the rigorous code of their calling and wholly satisfied, like workers of any trade, after a particularly good day at the office.
Diaz’s spirited sports satire -- which at times goes too far out of its way to explain its themes and point of view -- receives a thoroughly rousing staging by director John Vreeke, an incredibly well-cast five-guy ensemble and a design team that transforms Woolly Mammoth Theatre into an infectiously boisterous venue on the professional circuit. It is, in fact, when the architecture of the wrestling ring itself descends from the Woolly stratosphere that the drama’s most elaborate and exciting entrance is achieved.
And in the few short, electric bouts that follow, a new appreciation emerges, not for the explosion of violence, but for the discipline of ring performance and the expertise it requires to make it appear one’s moves have lethal potential -- or one’s skull is cracking.
“The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2010. You can see via Vreeke’s earthy embrace of the work why such a hearty helping of poetry and perspiration would be an impressive contest entry. You could desire, however, that the dramatist invested more trust in his audience to find its own way through the narrative, and not have to rely on a virtual nonstop narration -- and superfluous summation at evening’s end -- to ensure he’s adequately spelled everything out.
Maybe Diaz worried that while wrestling IS theater, the matches, with their hulking combatants, sometimes in the guise of costumed characters of borderline ethnic offensiveness, weren’t all that relatable for a theater audience. He needn’t have, because “Chad Deity” is not a wrestling play per se; it is a morality play, and a work of more lyrical and ironic dimensions than the reductive good-vs.-evil stories that play out in the rings of the WWE.
The moral center of “Chad Deity” is one of the business’s professional fall guys, a scrappy wrestler who goes by the stage name of Mace and is played most persuasively by Jose Joaquin Perez. Mace’s job is to lose. Night after night, on a circuit here known as The Wrestling, Mace’s orders are to be vanquished by star wrestlers such as the universally adored Chad Deity (a suitably imposing and self-mocking Shawn T. Andrew), who throws American dollars emblazoned with his likeness at us --and whose uber-cockiness would make a piker out of Rowdy Roddy Piper.
The poignant underpinning is that Mace is the true expert and aficionado. And Chad is a poseur and money-grubbing cynic, in the thrall of a promoter portrayed with all the requisite bluster by the superbly crude and slick Michael Russotto. In goatee and expensive three-piece suits, Russotto’s Everett K. Olson forever seeks new depths of American resentment and knee-jerk hostility to exploit, courtesy of ring villains like his newest find, an Indian American hip-hop kid from the streets of New York (the splendid Adi Hanash). The bottom-feeding Olson christens him The Fundamentalist, a kaffiyeh-wearing wrestler who straps on a belt of dynamite sticks and, of course, trades on the worst Middle Eastern stereotypes.
Never mind that Hanash’s Vigneshwar Paduar is South Asian in descent: To Olson, they’re all the dangerous other. And one of the questions Diaz is asking is to what degree members of ethnic minorities buy into, or at least tolerate, cultural prejudices in order to succeed. The saddest case is Perez’s Macedonio Guerra, a.k.a. Mace, who in Pancho Villa getup becomes The Fundamentalist’s sidekick, with the hilarious new name of Che Chavez Castro. The idea of merging the identities of Che Guevara, Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro into a character American “heroes” can crush is as delightfully absurd as was the impulse once upon a time to change the name of French fries to freedom fries.
The designers -- Misha Kachman on sets, Jared Mezzocchi on projections, Ivania Stack on costumes, Christopher Baine on sound and Colin K. Bills on lighting -- have been let loose on Woolly’s main stage, and the results are an adrenaline rush. The multi-sensory overload approximates the feel of an actual arena. And when at last the wrestlers go at it in a ring lowered in front of us with an almost spiritual reverence, the transporting effect is complete. In bouts credited to fight choreographer Joe Isenberg, the terrific James Long, a professional wrestler with a degree in the arts (!), portrays several of the opponents of Chad Deity and The Fundamentalist. Watching Long create the illusion of combat and, yes, even injury, helps you to understand how much performance art there is in all this brutality.
My one wish would be that so much of the story were not related in what’s known in the theater as “direct address,” a device used all too liberally in modern drama. It is chiefly Perez’s burden to narrate, to turn the eavesdroppers of the audience into pupils in a lecture hall. The tedium of the approach is an injustice to the delightful physicality and freewheeling theatricality of the playwright’s other inventions.
PREVIEW: ‘Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity’ climbs into the ring at Woolly Mammoth
By Nelson Pressley
Friday, Aug. 31, 2012
Clues that James Long, making his theatrical debut as a wrestler in the Pulitzer-nominated drama“The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” is in fact a real-life wrestler:
His hair is tied in a Samurai topknot.
The Speedo he’s wearing (in combination with tall black boots) has less fabric than a handkerchief.
His promotional skills are highly honed: The banter and preening quickly hit a comic overdrive.
“I’m embarrassed,” Long deadpans, striking macho poses for a photographer as the show’s cast and crew, scattered around the otherwise empty Woolly Mammoth theater (where performances begin Monday), guffaw and crack jokes.
“Looks like Jimmy’s done this before,” “Deity” director John Vreeke jabs from the side of the room.
But the proof positive comes in the ring that is a key feature of designer Misha Kachman’s set. In a demonstration of the show’s wrestling scenes, Long and Shawn T. Andrew — playing the play’s idolized black champion Chad Deity (and yes, race and ethnicity become themes in Kristoffer Diaz’s pointed satire of the stereotype-heavy wrestling and post-9/11 American life) strut inside the ropes and bash each other.
It’s the standard fakery: a forearm to the shoulder blades induces an earthquake tremor through the whole body. A fall to the canvas comes with an agonized fist slamming the floor, which echoes like thunder to make the hit seem harder.
But when Andrew flings Long against the ropes, Long rebounds like a handball and gets clotheslined. He’s airborne; he lands on his back. Then the burly Andrew hoists the trim Long over his head — yes, he does — and drops Long to the canvas in the move known as the Power Bomb.
Can’t fake that. And that’s the goal of Long and fight choreographer Joe Isenberg: to make the ring encounters in “Chad Deity” as authentic as possible.
“When you’re doing the Power Bomb,” Isenberg says, “you need to allow gravity and the fall to just do their thing.”
“Everything’s so physical,” says Long, who plays a string of palookas in the show and is helping Isenberg with the holds and slams. “That’s why this play is going to be so exciting. My goal coming in was to have the most physical version of this play that’s been done. Joe was down, and the guys were so open. I’m so thankful for that.”
Bringing a SmackDown ethos into the theater isn’t all about excitement, though. Apparently, it’s also about safety. The wrestling demo was introduced with the announcement that if anything went wrong, the “stop” signal would be both arms held up in an “X” position. But generally, the cautious Step, Step, Grip, Turn, Grapple, Release minuet of so much stage combat — geared, of course, to prevent actors from being injured — is being brushed aside for the gruff body lingo of the pro ring.
Isenberg, an actor and fight choreographer who had funding through a Kennedy Center program to observe the Louisville “Chad Deity” production, says, “To do professional wrestling with stage combat kind of sprinkled in to make it more safe makes it so much more dangerous.”
Long likens it to slowing down in fast traffic. “You’ve got these 200-pound guys running at each other full speed, stop-and-dropping people,” he says. “You can’t pump your brakes on the highway.”
Long, 30, was part of an underground wrestling group at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he graduated with a fine arts degree. In Richmond, the wrestlers — ranging in age from 18 to 35, with almost two-thirds of the participants women — would fight before as many as 900 people a night.
These days Long works for Ohio Valley Wrestling, a Louisville-based operation that Long says is a feeder system for the TNA (Total Nonstop Action) circuit, which broadcasts fights on Spike TV. Louisville is where Long first saw the play and met Isenberg; when Woolly committed to the play, Isenberg suggested hiring Long.
Long fights in convention centers, high schools and in the OVW TV studios, and he’s in the ring five or six times a week. He’ll return to OVW when “Chad Deity” wraps up; this acting stint is a brief side gig of roles that require more wrestling than talking.
Long currently fights as Paredyse, “the Femmeboy Phenom of Wrestling,” according to his Web site, Paredyse.com. Previously he was the Kamikaze Kid. Changing identities is part of the showy melodrama of wrestling, which Long feels playwright Diaz understands well.
“Everybody at some point was playing with the toy,” Long explains. He means the action figure that captures the fancy of kids who want to be wrestlers — lively, muscled athletes with larger-than-life identities.
Those identities are the thrust of this widely produced breakthrough play by Diaz, a New York-born dramatist with Puerto Rican roots. The plot hinges on the emergence of a new star marketed as a Middle Eastern terrorist, which Diaz has said is based on the actual controversy a few years ago surrounding a blatantly offensive “character” named Muhammad Hassan wrestling for WWE.
For most wrestlers, playing the good guy or the bad guy can be beside the point. As a pro, the goal is to “get over.” The example Long uses is The Rock:
“He came in as a vanilla, baby-faced kind of a good guy. A nothing. And people hated it. It was so fake and so vanilla. . . . And then they turned him into a bad guy.”
With the transformation, The Rock was “over” — he had won over a core of fans.
“Once you’re over, you can do anything you want, basically,” Long says. “The Rock does things people wouldn’t necessarily approve of. But because it’s him — and they love him — he’s allowed to do it.”
At this moment, Andrew, still perspiring from his ring tussle with Long, appears on the far side of the Woolly lobby. He pauses, then scowls the scowl of a heavyweight champ. He waves Long off, dismissing his rival. Swatting a fly.
It would appear that the cast has gotten into the wrestling thing.
The first week of rehearsals, Long and Isenberg ran a mini-boot camp for the cast. “They go, ‘Holy cr--, this isn’t fake. This hurts all the time,’ ” Long says. “I go, ‘Well it hurts, but you’re not hurt. There’s a difference.’ ”
“That’s a real ring,” Isenberg points out. According to Isenberg, Kachman’s set is canvas over an inch of foam, 1-by-12 pine strips, and steel girders. Long says some cynical fans suspect wrestlers of bouncing around on trampolines; he wishes it were true.
“The ropes hurt, too,” Long says. “You bruise. You have to build calluses on your lats to hit these ropes like this, even if you’re trying to hit it at low speed.”
Still, “Chad Deity” is a play, not the rigged sport-as-theater we see on TV. Not that Long is nervous about making his debut on the legitimate stage.
“Anything that the theater brings, except for how nice they are and how well they treat you, I’m over-prepared for,” says Long. “September 3, we’re going to let ’em fly.” He begins to bellow, grinning and hyping the show in the overbearing rassler’s classic ’roid rage voice:
“SEPTEMBER THIRD, THE WOOLLY MAMMOTH THEATRE, BROTHER, EIGHT O’CLOCK, MAKE SURE TO GET THERE EARLY, SPECIAL ON THE CONCESSIONS. TRUST ME!”