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Pulitzer-nominated wrestling play is a major knockout
We’ve known it all along, though we still revel in every outrageous, distorted reflection of true life that is thrown at us—in television, “reality” is a term that should be taken with a sizeable grain of salt. The world of televised wrestling, powered by the sheer volume of entertainment that raw human conflict can provide, is surprisingly no different from the carefully engineered documentations of beauty pageants or Kardashian daily living pervading programs which ought to be inviting skepticism.
In The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist for Drama which is now playing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, every fight is exposed as a performance with all the theatricality and preparation of a full-fledged Broadway musical. A scathing satire with dialogue as sharp and hard-hitting as its characters’ toughest punches, this fresh piece of comic theater thrusts the gaudy world of TV wrestling under the spotlight while tackling serious American hypocrisies about race and social mobility in the process.
The story begins with a brief glimmer of optimism, a vignette espousing the American Dream as central character Mace’s grandfather encourages his younger self to act on a love of wrestling. In this fleeting moment, the sport represents classic American values of sportsmanship and hard work that will surely lead to a promising future for Guerra. A Bronx native of Puerto Rican origins, “Mace,” played with undeniable candor by José Joaquín Pérez, exemplifies the underdog of society who dreams only of rising to glory in the sport he purely loves.
Fast forward to the present day. Mace is working as a professional “fall guy” in a place with fewer principles than Walt White on steroids—THE Wrestling, a television network which represents the closest he can get to being a star wrestler. Addressing the audience with razor-sharp commentary, Perez skilfully illustrates the hypocrisies of the wrestling world and simultaneously builds an atmosphere of complicity with frequent asides, almost all of which begin with, “I can’t tell my boss this, but…” The boss in question, a grease monkey caricature of every sleazy employer there ever was, embodies capitalism at its worst; willing to do anything and everything to bolster his business, “EKO” has achieved success by making a star of a hollow, showy wrestler named Chad Deity. In a wacky wonderland where image is everything, this cartoonish showman represents the ultimate triumph of charisma over talent and virtue.
The laughable dynamics between this trio—the greedy boss, the spoiled star, and the humble narrator who is there only to make the other two look good—become all the more exaggerated when Mace recruits Vigneshwar Paduar, a smooth-talking Brooklynite of Indian descent, to the business. Marketed to viewers as the Muslim “fundamentalist,” he becomes a target of anti-Islamic hatred and a parody of American racial tolerance. The stark contrast between the metaphorical backstage, where wrestlers like Paduar and Mace are supplied with these false identities designed to stir an audience, and the stage of the wrestling ring, anchors the story and renders its satire all the more biting. In every match, the blinding lights and screen projections of an impressive set magnify the effect of television. Rather than being kept in the dark, though, the audience is in on the joke that this entertainment world is not as dazzling as it seems.
Playwright Kristoffer Diaz, who won the 2011 New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award for Chad Deity, has artfully devised a work pulsating with energy driven by scathing irony. Speaking in the blunt language of the New York streets, his characters are drawn with all the grandiosity of an expert cartoonist and the actors make sure every line drops with all the impact of a roundhouse kick. Everything about this play is blown out of proportion, but the nature of its caricatures effectively parodies real-life fakery.