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A CurtainUp Review
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity
By Elyse Sommer
Now this hip-hop and testerone fueled play about the world of wrestling has landed at Second Stage. It features the same director, creative team and two of the actors from the Victory Gardens production.
So does it live up to all the buzz?
It does. But that's not to say it's going to bowl everyone over shades of Chicago imports like Tracy Letts' August Osage County — which did win the Pulitzer — or David Cromer's terrific new staging of Our Town (a 1937 Pulitzer Prize winner) which continues to enjoy a long run in Manhattan's West Village.
There's no question that this at times blinding and deafening spectacle is like nothing you've ever seen. It's loud and vulgar, with humor that veers towards being offensive. And yes it is about wrestling, which isn't likely to be a prime interest of most New York theater goers. On the other hand, it's not really about wrestling. Diaz's no-holds bar picture of this shamelessly full of fakery sport serves as a multi-pronged metaphor for a looks above talent and money over all driven pop culture, the sins of capitalism, racism and jingoism.
Director Edward Torres and set designer Brian Sidney Bainbridge have turned the stage into a dizzying circus scene. It's dominated by a functioning wrestling ring that's framed by frequently and brilliantly used giant video screens and garish images of aggressive animals (a rooster primed for a cock fight, a shark, a lion, etc).
Except for the ringmaster, Everett K. Olsen a.k.a. EKA (Michael T. Weiss personifying sleaze, greed and obtuseness), the men on stage actually do wrestle — very realistically so since fight director David Wooley has heeded the playwright's detailed and very explicit directions to make sure that "any wrestling moves used in the course of the play are indeed wrestling moves and not stage combat." Never have I seen a play that makes the fight director's job so challenging and the actors' jobs so prone to injury and, at the very least, lots of back and knee pains.
EKA is the ruthless CEO of a fictional organization known as "THE Wrestling, " and the play's villain. But there's also a hero, a young Puerto Rican from the Bronx named Macedonia Guerra (Desmin Borges). He's renamed "The Mace" by EK who deems his real name too hard to pronounce, an opinion seconded by the African-American Chad (Terence Archie, sporting an awe inspiring physique and making it clear that he's as untalented as he is charismatic).
As Mace sees it, his full name is hard only for white people and non-Spanish speaking Americans but he lets EK have the last word: "Wrestling fans do not speak Spanish." That exchange is typical of Mace's relationship with EK and the the Champ. He knows he's smarter than EK and he knows that Chad is a bad wrestler whose championship's belt is the result of his being a good-looking hunk and because Mace makes him look good. In short, Mace is THE Wrestling's invisible man. He hides his smarts to make his boss feel good and in charge. He hides his own wrestling skills in order to be part of this world even if that role brings plenty of aches and pains from constantly playing the loser but neither public recognition or adequate financial rewards. He nevertheless sees it as a dream job that makes him " in love with who I am."
Desmin Borges may play a man who makes himself invisible to be one of THE Wrestlers but his role on stage is anything but invisible. If this is anyone's show, it's his. He's in the wrestling ring to let us actually see the moves by him that are the secret of Chad's success. He's also our wise and witty narrator, segeuing nimbly between being part of the story line and sharing his wisdom with the audience in motor-mouthed street talk and hip-hop raps that within the context of the flamboyant staging often make this feel like a musical. It's a humongous role that calls for him to alternate huge chunks of text with being tossed on his back in a pretend match.
But though Mace may be willing to sublimate his own ambition for championship standing, he ends up being the handler and pretend-bad partner for Vigneshwar Paduar or VJ (Usman Ally, like Borges a lucky holdover from the Chicago production), a young Indian-American from Brooklyn he discovers at a basketball game and persuades EK to make part of THE Wrestler stable. VJ too likes hip-hop and addresses the audience about stuff like outsourcing tech jobs and a family-run business.
Under EK's comic book style dictatorship VJ and Mace are partnered as caricatures symbolizing illegal immigrants and radical terrorists — with VJ turned into a beareded Muslim terrorist called The Fundamentalist and Mace into an undesirable Mexican. There are three colorful symbolic stereotypes (all played by Christian Litke) making their own elaborate entrances and giving the mock good guy versus bad guy money motivated scenario a seriously dangerous edge.
The political satire (starting with Chad's name) can get a bit heavy-handed, the dialogue requires keen attention to catch its multi-cultural rhythms and it will take some more than others to succumb to the circus-y absurdity of it all. A ten or fifteen minute trim wouldn't hurt either. Quibbles notwithstanding, this is a tasty mix of lively staging and a clever use of a background that makes you wonder why no one has coupled it with political satire before.