If at first glance a theater patron believes that Kristoffer Diaz’ play The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Diety is about professionalwrestling, it is entirely understandable. You walk into ion theatre company’s BlkBox Theatre and see a wrestling ring that dominates the set, and soon muscular, broad-shouldered men in skin-tight outfits start to talk about the biz and demonstrate body-slamming moves in the ring.
But 10 minutes into this fast-paced, fast-talking blitz of athletic feinting, it becomes clear that this play is no more about professional wrestling than the musical Cabaret is about nightclub entertainment. For Diaz, wrestling is just a metaphor—oh, wait: not JUST a useful metaphor, but a gigantic, Statue-of Liberty-sized symbol of contemporary America’s hopelessly confused and venal attempts to create a multiracial society.
Chad Diety, a muscle-bound but technically inept African-American wrestler, is the current champion of a fictional wrestling conglomerate (it presents live matches and broadcasts pay-per-view televised matches) located in in New York City. Diety’s success in the ring is facilitated by more skillful but less glamorous wrestlers, of whom Puerto Rican-American Macedonio “Mace” Guerra is foremost, who pretend be defenseless against the Diety and who have perfected their balletic ability both to take punishing blows and to exhibit extreme agony without incurring too much actual physical toll. Mace’s mantra tells it all, “I do all the heavy lifting around here.”
Not surprisingly, the CEO of this wrestling enterprise is an arch-capitalist Anglo, Everett K. Olson, who both manipulates the people of color who work for him and capitalizes on the racial prejudices and jingoism of his paying audiences. Diaz’ none too subtle plot turns around Olson’s bright idea to market some scrappy kid from Brooklyn as a Moslem Fundamentalist who will challenge Diaz in the ring. And for good measure, Olson has Mace impersonate an undocumented Mexican agitator who interprets and inflames the Fundamentalist’s anti-American screed.
Yes, this is clearly a post-9/11 play, which was given its highly successful premiere production at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater in 2009, a production I was fortunate to see on a Windy City summer vacation. The Chicago production went on to New York’s Second Stage Theatre the following year, where it garnered a few rave reviews and climbed onto the “almost made it list” for the 2011 Pulitzer Pirize in Drama. Ion theatre is presenting the San Diego premiere of Diaz’ sizzling play, although why any of the city’s major theaters with capacious proscenium stages and massive technical equipment did not beat them to it is puzzling. Kudos to ion’s intrepid programming.[php snippet=1]
Co-directors Catalina Maynard and Claudio Raygoza have staged a knockout production (really, the only possible adjective!) that barrels along at a breathless pace with explosive energy to keep the spine tingling and mind reeling the entire 100 mintues. That this duo was able to actually simulate wrestling matches in a corner of ion’s already tiny storefront stage should find its way into the “Guiness Book of Records.”As Mace, Steven Lone managed to steal the show with his knowing, nuanced portrayal of the underdog who finds solace and justification in seeing through all of the idiocy and ignorance of his overlord. He bounced around the stage like a blip on a video game, giving new meaning to the term irrepressible. As the title character, Vimel Sephus gave Chad almost too much dignity and sophistication, but he aptly captured the champ’s self-assurance and vanity without so much as a hint of exaggeration.
Jake Rosko’s Everett K. Olson proved surprisingly suave for a character who is anything but, and I loved his concocted fight announcer’s voice, which dangerously dropped an octave below his actual speaking range only to be reconstituted electronically by the public address system. Evan Kendig bravely took the thankless job of portraying three different fighters who were tossed into the ring with Chad as objects of sacrifice. He summoned just the right amount of bravado for each patsy.
As a Brooklyn street tough, Keala Milles could spit anger and swagger with ease, but I was unconvinced by his transformation into the Fundamentalist threat intended to unseat Chad Diety. He projected insufficient sense of danger or menace, nor did he project a persona strong enough to realistically challenge the champ.
Claudio Raygoza’s simple scenic design accomplished everything necessary both in and out of the ring, and Mary Summerday’s costumes reveled in the glitz and faux glamour of professional wrestling. Mace’s patchwork action figure costume was a triumph that never tired the eyes. Keeping much of the stage dark and spotlighting action in corners and crevices gave the play the illusion of more differentiated space than the BlkBox will ever have. Credit James Dirks and Evan Kendig with creating a sound design that always let us know where we were physically; the crowd noises worked magically.
If I can trust my memory, I would say that ion theatre’s production of The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Diety made more of the humorous possibilities of the script, while Victory Garderns’ approach stressed its earnest social criticisms. Each approach has much to recommend it.
Even if you cannot agree with Diaz’ political and social critique of American society, you would deprive yourself of an immense theatrical reward if you failed to make your own elaborate entrance into ion’s BlkBox to see Chad Deity and his denizens take after one another.