Meet Macedonio “The Mace” Guerro (Luis Galindo, in the role of a lifetime). Squat and a bit doughy, he sits on the top turnbuckle at a corner of the wrestling ring. He fits comfortably there; it's home turf, it's where he belongs. Although he's not the star at THE Wrestling, TV's preeminent wrestling conglomerate, Mace is a minor celebrity. He's indispensable for the success of the franchise. To be honest, he's too good a wrestler to be a star. He's where he is because he makes all the other wrestlers look better. He's the fall guy, the one who does the “heavy lifting,” the one who knows how to take a body slam or a chair to the back and not get hurt. He loves his job, playing the villain; he loves being part of the team, even if he's the only one on the team doing the work. “When you get really good at the wrestling part of the wrestling business,” he says directly to us, “you're not rewarded. You're unrewarded. De-rewarded. De-warded?”
It's bracing talk like this, hip-hop smart and jivey, streetwise and smartass, that keeps our ears pricked and on alert. What are we in for at Stages Repertory Theatre?
How about one wild ride, full of dropkicks, piledrivers, brainbusters, and moonsaults. In Kristoffer Diaz's viscerally physical satire The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity (a 2009 Pultizer Prize-nominee), America gets bodyslammed.
And where are we? Inside the world of pro wrestling, that fake, hokey showbiz world of ethnic stereotypes, natavistic prejudices, and cartoon characters who pummel each other with choreographed violence so planned and finessed that Balanchine would approve. It's a weird form of the American dream they're selling, but it's uniquely ours. Scripted and preordained, orchestrated by business magnate EKO Olson (Drake Simpson, perfectly oily) into epic morality tales of good vs. evil (i.e., America vs. everyone else), where the muscular good guys dress in stars and stripes, figuratively wrapping themselves in the flag, while the bad guy, our Mace, is faceless, hidden behind a black leather mask, a reference to the equally goofy Mexican wrestling tradition lucha libre. The undisputed star of THE Wrestling is Afro-American Chad Deity (Roc Living, solid, sculpted, puffed with ego).
Mace has a story to tell, seems impelled to tell, and his rolling, rocking monologue is non-stop stream of consciousness. Throughout the play, he talks right to us, interrupting the others, commenting and conspiring, breaking the fourth wall in pungent asides. Decent and hard-working, he goes along to get along, never contradicting the boss, never saying what he really thinks. That he leaves for us. What he really wants to be is a contender. Sure, he doesn't possess Chad Deity's dazzle of physique, “entrance,” or blinding-smile presence, but he could. Just ask him. No, his Puerto Rican heritage has demoted him in the sideshow to second banana, the meanie who gets booed and loathed by the audience. If he could only find the next Chad Deity, he might move into being a manager, maybe even partner with EKO.
Mace is content in his wrestling life, always being defeated and on his back, until, by chance, he meets VP (Herman Gambhir in showstopping dazzle all his own), a bouncy streetwise Indian from Brooklyn with his own built-in aura. He's his own force of nature, and the already surprising play takes a gymnastic leap off the ropes with his introduction. Gambhir is so photogenic, so alive and different, he nimbly steals the play away from Mace and everybody else on stage.
VP can do anything: shoot ball like Jordan, speak Japanese, shit talk bullies, bed anyone he wants. He's got the moves of a future star. To Mace, he's the “most amazing guy in the room” and maybe, just maybe, the next pro wrestling supernova. Seeing dollar signs, EKO heartily agrees. In a dizzyingly daft scene, all three of them, with Chad's help, transform gregarious hip hop VP into silent, deadly The Fundamentalist, a whacked-out combo of “Al-Qaeda, Hamas, and the French for the destruction of the greatest country on Earth...trained in the deadly Muslim martial arts where they believe you can murder a man with pressure points and prayer.” And Mace will be his manager, his “speaker,” a Mexican bandito in serape with bandoleer and cheesy mustache named Che Chavez Castro who spouts inflammatory anti-American rhetoric. What a pair! The plan's so deliciously loopy and incredibly politically incorrect, they know the rubes in the far seats will eat it up. It's gotta work. Act II shows us what demons actually get defeated.
Directed with energy to spare by Josh Morrison, overlaid with stunningly realistic fight sequences choreographed by Greg Vallot – the wrestling might be inherently fake but the risky moves sure are real. How many times a day can you get backslammed to the floor and not get bruised or injured? Hats off to the actors. Luke Fedell, who plays multiple wrestlers, The Bad Guy, Billy Heartland, and Old Glory, receives thrice the punishment. (Tex Lonestar spells the role in subsequent performances.) The grueling rehearsals and body conditioning have paid off handsomely. Do not try this at home!
Kevin Holden's scenic and lighting designs are impressively tacky/perfect. The wrestling ring's floor is spongy enough to absorb slams with appropriate gasping thuds, and the pads at the corners are tiered in magnificent red, white, and blue. Revolving drums on either side of the stage let characters swing into view or exit with fluid ease. Peter Ton's video and graphic designs play up Chad Deity's elaborate entrance with comic flair and over-the-top ostentation. His entrance is filmed lived, which is broadcast around the theater on video screens. He tosses dollar bills to the audience emblazoned with his face instead of Washington's. If you've ever watched WWF and witnessed Hulk Hogan or Ric Flair, sweating testosterone, make an entrance flanked by a posse of pneumatic beauties and Spielberg effects you know the visual riffs Diaz mocks in prickly homage. Stages gives us prickly riffs aplenty. You can smell the popcorn, which isn't surprising because it's popped in the lobby and supplied to patrons. Nice. And thanks to Horse Head Theatre and Doomsday Wrestling, the immersive experience is augmented by the pre-show undercard wrestling match which gets us in the combative, vociferous mood. Cheers and boos are encouraged.
Mace's rumpled id is wonderfully channeled by motormouth Galindo, who speaks Diaz's contorted high-thrown phrases as if born on the street but mentored by Clifford Odets. He skitters around the language, fleet and intense. He's the smartest guy in the room, but only we know it. His classic underdog is immediately likable, and we never give up on him. Galindo has a defiant speech in Act II that spotlights the play's themes a trifle too clearly, but he wallops it nonetheless.
Chad Deity is ideally embodied in Living, who radiates charismatic machismo with comic accuracy. He look great in his shark skin suit, and looks even more impressive out of it. (Andrew Cloud's costume design is always right.) Living, too, gets a stirring set-piece that closes Act I, a batty monologue about Chad's massive refrigerator with its four huge crispers which segues into an aria about expectation and raisin bread. Trust me, it works.
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Simpson, in patent leather shoes and three-piece suit, is as slick and venal a TV entrepreneur as you will find. His EKO is so viscous, you expect him to slide out of his chair when he revolves into view. He's made a fortune peddling racism, bigotry, and xenophobia, turning his wrestlers into a skewed view of American idealism. Blustery and gung-ho, he'll sacrifice anyone for the almighty dollar. Self-assured Simpson makes EKO superbly offensive and very funny. You laugh at his antics, but then realize he's one of many you've met in your life.
But it's Gambhir who's most impressive. Lithe and chiseled like an A&F model, his character is an obvious showstopper, one of those unique characters who pop up in drama and jump start a play, even though it's already been humming merrily. Gambhir is so good, it's frightening. He's marvelously attuned to Diaz's breakdance rhythms, and like Galindo's Mace he's sympathetic from the get-go. We never know what he might say or do next, which keeps us riveted on his performance. He's got an ego like Chad's, but his mind is forever spinning. Gambhir sets off sparks. He's aflame.
Stages sets off sparks, too. So does playwright Kristoffer Diaz. This unique play (2009) is something American drama hasn't quite experienced before. Diaz turns pro wrestling into the stuff of O'Neill, with great swathes of screwball Kaufman and Hart, and brushstrokes of rap and hip hop. It's quite an amalgam. Hmm, like America, perhaps? Well, I'll be bodyslammed!
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity. Through November 8. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information, call 713-527-0123 or visit stagestheatre.com. $21 to $54.