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 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 kafiyah-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.
by Kristoffer Diaz. Directed by John Vreeke. Sets and costumes, Misha Kachman; costumes, Ivania Stack; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Christopher Baine; projections, Jared Mezzocchi; fight choreography, Joe Isenberg. About 2½ hours. Through Sept. 30 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Visit www.woollymammoth.net or call 202-393-3939.