Friday, April 16, 2010

Chad Deity and the American Dream

Did you know that they recently announced this year’s Pulitzer Prize winners

There’s a lot to the list that jumps out at me.  I’m pierced by a double-edged sword of pride and shame to watch reporters for m local Philadelphia Daily News take home the award for Investigative Journalism (pride) for their probe into corrupt narcotics cops (shame).  I’m fascinated that, in the shadow of a massive recession, the award for Biography went to a book about Cornelius Vanderbilt, a 19th-century shipping and railroad entrepreneur.  And shouldn’t we all take umbrage at Apple’s decision to bar a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist from its App Store?

But seeing as how my Bachelor’s is in Drama – and to earn such I once spent weeks memorizing past Pulitzer winners – my eye drifts innately to the Drama award.  This year’s recipient, Next to Normal, is a musical about a woman suffering from mental illness and the disease’s impact on her family.  This marks only the eighth time a musical has won the award, the last being Jonathan Larson’s Rent in 1996. 

However, I’m not here to talk about Next to Normal.  I’m discussing the awards because last fall I saw a production of one of this year’s three finalists for the Pulitzer in Drama: The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.

Despite earning the bulk of my income in theatre, I’ve somehow managed to limit my discussion of the field on this site to occasional Beckett and Shakespeare references.  I mainly do this because I’m not in the practice of critiquing people I know and work with (or might work with one day).  And as much of my theatre exposure these days comes from the Philly scene, I’m not about to call them out for better or for worse.  That wouldn’t be cool of me.  So don’t expect me to break down InterAct Theatre Company’s production of Chad Deity, though you should know it was excellent.

Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is a play about professional wrestling.  While Mickey Rourke’s Oscar-winning turn in The Wrestler portrayed the painful dénouement of an aging superstar, Chad Deity explores how such stars get born, are basked in, and explode.  The protagonist, Macedonio “Mace” Guerra, is mired in the middle ranks of a premiere wrestling outfit (cleverly titled “THE Wrestling”).  His ticket to the top comes when he meets a gregarious Indian kid from Brooklyn and the boss teams them up with one condition: they portray a team of terrorists.

What follows is a raucous exploration of the roles race and entertainment play in the American Dream.  And what better “sport” through which to view the American Dream than pro wrestling?  Pro wrestling trades in clashes of titanic wills, individual men going toe to toe in staged battle.  An individual can go from the lowliest jobber to a title contender as long as he works hard enough and succeeds in front of the crowd.

That’s the story they sell on TV, anyway.  Mace points out that – while he is one of the most technically proficient wrestlers in the company – the face of the company, Chad Deity, is a terrible wrestler.  He does not win on merit.  He wins because the crowd likes it when he wins, and when the crowd is happy, THE Wrestling makes more money.  Through Mace’s eyes, we see how the American Dream begins to resemble a less-than-pleasant American Reality. 

Portraying terrorists is the only way Mace and his partner Vigneshwar Paduar can make a splash.  Mace compromises his Puerto Rican heritage, donning faux Castro gear and spouting nonsense to the camera.  Paduar puts on a Turban and stares menacingly at the audience.  To fulfill their dreams, these men subjugate themselves to the storytelling needs of an industry laden with stereotypes. 

For a play chock full of physical action, Chad Deity rides just as much on Diaz’s effusive language.  Mace spends much of the play with one foot on the each side of the fourth wall, narrating scenes in which he’s also taking part.  His speech is kinetic and full of love for the art of storytelling in wrestling.  Unfortunately, it gets a tad verbose at times; no matter how well constructed the image or metaphor, I’d rather hear it once than three times in a row.  Still, the winding monologues alternate with great agility between nostalgia-tugging wrestling humor and revelatory insights into wrestling as a reflection of American culture.

In addition to its nuanced approach to the blunt world of wrestling stereotypes (just look at the early 90s characters Yokozuna and Haku), Chad Deity features some incredibly imaginative storytelling.  I saw the show in a thrust stage, which accurately mimicked the layout of most wrestling shows.  Live camera work projected “televised” monologues onto large screens upstage.  And, oh yeah, the set was a wrestling ring.  This genius staging decision blurred the line between literal fact-by-fact plot and Mace’s subjective narrative.  The climactic scene, in which Mace decides how to handle his newfound success/failure, is actually just an argument, but the actors kick, punch, and wield steel chairs to punctuate the dramatic action.  This heightened reality, in which subtext is mirrored with non-literal onstage violence, expertly channels the all-or-atmosphere of an industry where driving beer trucks into stadiums is the norm.  It’s also the perfect payoff for a play about the difference between performance and reality, dreams and pragmatism.

I’ve discussed with some of my Charge Shot!!! colleagues pro wrestling’s high-brow/low-brow qualities.  On one hand, it’s grown men in tights fake punching each other until they bleed.  On the other, it’s an extremely technical vaudeville act in which charismatic performers convince thousands of people to either cheer or boo their every word.  And The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity walks that top rope with all the energy and braggadocio of a world wrestling champion.