Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond


September 08, 2011

Terence Archie in Kristoffer Diaz's The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity. Photo: Michael Lamont

I did not watch the debate between the hopefuls for the Republican presidential nomination on Wednesday. Besides my general distaste for hate mongering, I find those things too predictable and phony to hold any serious interest. Like many other people, it’s a sentiment that I’ve held towards professional wrestling as well over the years. So who would have guessed how much I would enjoy Kristoffer Diaz’ The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, which opened up the 2011/2012 Geffen Playhouse season in Westwood on Wednesday. The wonderfully titled Deity is set in the world of professional wrestling, but it had just as much to say about that concurrent televised debate as it did about the big-money television entertainment based on the idea of sport. While Diaz’ characters are professional wrestlers, what they’re really talking about is the American spirit - its hope as well as its darker sides.

Terence Archie and Desmin Borges Photo: Michael Lamont

The protagonist of the play is not the titular Chad Deity, a heroic champion wrestler with the THE Wrestling organization. Instead the star is one Macedonio Guerra, Mace for short, a Bronx born man of Puerto Rican heritage whose childhood love of the art of wrestling has led him into the part of a bit player in the THE organization headed by flashy executive Everett K. Olson, or as his employees call him EKO. Mace makes the winners look good by losing in the most dramatic and compelling fashions. Mace fills the audience in by addressing them directly throughout most of the play explaining how the designated winners and losers of these simulated battles work together to produce simulated struggle and victory. Mace is played by the superb Desmin Borges who manages to portray his character's complicated and conflicted love of his “art” with a real complexity. But Mace is looking for something more than being a bit player, and when he meets Vingeshwar Paduar, VP, in Brooklyn, he initiates a collaboration to rise to the top of the heap in their organization.

Justin Leeper in Kristoffer Diaz's The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity. Photo: Michael Lamont

The down side is that doing so will mean portraying two villains who are broad based amalgam’s of most of the racist stereotypes you can think of. Paduar becomes “The Fundamentalist”, a stoic Muslim terrorist bent on destroying America and hero Chad Deity. Mace is now an invading Mexican revolutionary replete with cigar and bongo drums. The two strike a hateful nerve in the wrestling audience and soon find themselves on a meteoric rise as adversaries on their way to the big pay-per-view bout against Deity at the end of the month. But the price of reiterating the very racist stereotypes that have been used against them in their own lives starts to take its toll when VP and Mace splinter over matters of strategic planning.

Terence Archie and Usman Ally Photo: Michael Lamont

What’s most admirable about Deity is the play doesn’t take any of the easy ways out from this point. The play is not only an indictment of the bigotry used to create the stories for the wrestling shows, but of the audience's own insistence on the repetition of the same stories over and over again as entertainment. It's not unlike the political debate where candidates strive to say the most outlandish things, regardless of whether or not they believe them, in order to placate and provoke an audience in ways that they expect to be. People may bemoan the lack of of honest politicians, and yet most voters have no interest in hearing what such an honest forthright person would actually have to say in such a situation. We want lies, on some level, and we get what we ask for.

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity mines the complexities of American ideals of community and justice in surprising ways that aren’t easily prepackaged or easily resolved. It has a masterful ending and the crafting that led to the play’s accolades are easy to recognize. (You may recall that this is one of the 2010 finalists for the Pulitzer Prize when the recommendations of the drama jury were ignored by the Pulitzer executive board after receiving comp tickets to a non-finalist days before the final decision.) But best of all, Diaz manages these feats while keeping things very entertaining throughout. A ring dominates the stage with two sets of video screens on either side. Wrestling competitors enter through the theater aisles while accompanied by loud music, light shows, and their own elaborate video entrances. Director Edward Torres manages an artful mimicry of the kind of excitement pro wrestling provides its fans, and the audience soon involves itself in the mawkish drama of the ring with their own clapping, whoops, and calls. The show is quite funny and the cast, many of whom were imported along with this production from an off-Broadway run in New York last year, were as fun to look at as they were to listen to. Terence Archie is the muscular, scantily clad Deity and Usman Ally is the smart talking Paduar. This is a play with the gift of gab, and the talky characters never bore but crackle and pop with riffs on all facets of modern day life. There are more than a few body slams in the play's action as well and the show contains large amounts of physical choreography. Yes, sometimes the characters' monologues can seem a bit pandering to the audience, particularly early on in the show. But this is an easy play to like despite its sometimes dark heart and the weight of history on its mind. The show runs through Oct 9 and is well worth seeing.

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