Ladies and Gentlemen, in this corner of Chicago’s rich theater scene, weighing in with a unique combo of vigorous physicality and wickedly intelligent humor, please put your hands together for “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” a vibrantly entertaining, insightful new play about — wait for it — professional wrestling. From playwright Kristoffer Diaz, and produced by Victory Gardens in association with under-recognized local company Teatro Vista, this play set in the unlikeliest of milieus seems likely to prove a breakout effort for its scribe, director Edward Torres and lead performer Desmin Borges.
Borges plays Macedonio Guerra, who grew up in the Bronx with a special fondness for pro wrestling. While his brothers mostly just adored its raw energy, Macedonio felt a deeper appreciation for the form: “I was watching for real,” he says. “I was understanding every point of the stories being told.”
Now he’s in his mid-to-late-career as a mid-level wrestler called “The Mace,” a functional part of THE Wrestling, an obvious stand-in for the WWE. Mostly, he’s paid to lose, which doesn’t bother him too much. He’s smart enough to know that in wrestling — and in life — some people simply have the job of making the less talented look good. For Macedonio, that’s one of the elements that makes wrestling representative of America: “You can’t kick a guy’s ass without the help of the guy whose ass you’re kicking.”
The guy who is paid to kick ass is Chad Deity (a terrific Kamal Angelo Bolden), who does indeed make an elaborate entrance, filled with the cocky pride of a man with the world on his side. No matter how much he and boss Everett K. Olson (an amusing James Krag) know they create fiction, there’s still a very real star system. Most of the company’s revenue comes from merchandise with Chad Deity on it — so even if he’s a fake champion, he’s a real millionaire. “Do you know how many crispers I have in my refrigerator?,” he bellows when challenged.
The status quo gets a nice stirring when Macedonio discovers Vigneshwar Paduar (Usman Ally), an Indian basketball player in Brooklyn with a gift for hip-hop-style gab that Macedonio finds so compelling he brings Paduar to meet Olson. Maybe, just maybe, Macedonio thinks his buddy VP will be the vehicle for telling a new type of story, one more reflective of America’s polyglot reality.
But instead of seeing what’s unique in VP, Olson transforms him into the most base of stereotypes, a terrorist of vague international origin, and the Puerto Rican Macedonio plays his manager, the Mexican revolutionary Che Chavez Castro. As absurd villains, they become sudden stars.
This is highly entertaining stuff, edgy and funny and over-the-top, yet fully believable. Torres’ production punctuates the story with some “real” and very convincing wrestling sequences on the sizeable ring that commands centerstage in Brian Sidney Bembridge’s fully realized set design, replete with big, blinding lights for the staged entrances through the audience.
Borges, who leads us through the story with a modest, likable demeanor, draws us into his character’s expectations only to see them consistently up-ended. Diaz understands full well that, as in wrestling, plays are a whole lot more involving when there’s a rooting interest, and it’s awfully easy to root for Macedonio. If there’s an aesthetic limitation here, it’s that Diaz relies a bit too much on monologue, which keeps some of the other characters from being quite as involving as Macedonio.
The play, of course, is about wrestling and yet not at all about wrestling. “What we do is metaphor,” says Macedonio, which is as true of “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” as it is of its subject. Diaz has found a vehicle to tell a much deeper narrative about how our culture digests racial identity, and how commerce, as well as commercial storytelling, is at its core about generating passion, with the exploitation of our baser instincts often the easiest means of doing so.
This is sophisticated stuff and championship playwriting. It’s high art about low art, managing to be profoundly astute while eschewing pretension.