Chicago Theatre Review
Power Bombs, Super Kicks and Body Slams
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity – Red Theatre Chicago
Eight years ago, Victory Gardens introduced this comic drama by Kristoffer Diaz to Chicago audiences. It was the play’s world premier and it garnered enough word-of-mouth and excellent reviews to ignite other noteworthy productions across the country. Not the least of these was at New York City’s Second Stage Theatre. Diaz’s play, which was nominated for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, garnered a number of other awards, including the New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award, the Lucille Lortel, the Obie and Chicago’s Jeff Awards both for Best Production and Best New Work. It’s a unique piece of theatre, combining the pizzazz and showmanship of the professional wrestling world with the poetic language and personal intimacy of a play.
Jeremy Aluma’s engrossing new production recreates all that excitement and over-the-top theatricality from the original Chicago presentation, with several moments of heartbreaking soul searching. If anything, this more intimate, thrust-stage production brings the show more closely into the laps of the screaming and cheering crowd. Seldom has the sporting and theatrical world meshed so seamlessly. Aluma’s production is, quite simply, all-inclusive and terrifically breathtaking.
After a pre-show pep rally, during which one of the characters encourages the audience to participate loudly, clapping, cheering and swearing as desired, the lights come up on a fella named Mace. He’s a good-looking, likable young Puerto Rican athlete from Brooklyn, who breaks the fourth wall with his many monologues, stories and humorous anecdotes. He tells us about growing up with his two younger brothers, during which time he first imagined becoming a star wrestler. Mace promised his grandpa that he would never give in, but would follow his dream to the end, his own version of The American Dream. Mace would soon achieve his goal by becoming THE Wrestling organization’s heavy lifter, a fighter whose task it is to make the other wrestlers look good in the ring. He has the hardest job, enduring all the power bombs and body slams. Mace has the skill, as a talented young, experienced wrestler, but who gets none of the glory or fame.
Mace introduces us to all the other characters, particularly the handsome, titular African-American god marketed by his promoter as Chad Deity. This muscular fighter has been expertly groomed and turned into the star athlete of the sporting federation by EKO, the smarmy, wheeler-dealer owner of THE Wrestling. Amidst blazing lights and blaring trumpets, Chad Deity enters the ring for every fight, followed by his screaming groupies and female fans and dressed to kill in his dazzling outfits and giant, sparkling championship belt. He postures and preens and spouts poetic platitudes, but he’s choreographed to do very little during the actual fight allowing, instead, Mace to take all the slams and blows while making Chad appear to be the victor.
But Mace hears his brothers bragging about some neighborhood guy named Vigneshwar Paduar, a Bronx-born Indian athlete, who speaks five other languages and has the kind of charisma that could make him another wrestling star. Mace decides to seek out VP and, after meeting the young man, encourages his boss EKO to take a chance on this new wrestler. Mace’s job is to instruct and groom this handsome young athlete and introduce him in the ring. EKO decides to market his new wrestler as a Muslim terrorist whom he calls The Fundamentalist. He costumes VP in a turban and robe, giving him a yoga mat to bring into the ring and, in silence, instructing him to offer up silent prayers to his heathen god before each fight. EKO also recasts Mace as another anti-American terrorist character named Che Chavez Castro, dressing him in stereotypical, comical Mexican garb. VP is pitted against two other wrestlers, both of whom he easily defeats with his surprise lethal super kick. After he proves himself a success the tension ratchets even higher after he’s scheduled to fight Chad Deity in a multimillion dollar pay-per-view TV show.
This comic drama, which pokes fun at the fake fighting found in this theatrical sport, looks and sounds fantastic. Director Jerry Aluma has smoothly collaborated with skilled fight director Kyle Encinas to create two+ hours of sweaty, realistic, body slamming wrestling moves. This macho choreography is kept fresh and safe by fight captain Will Snyder. Diaz sets his satire in and around an actual wrestling ring, authentically recreated here by scenic designer Michael Lewis, who also designed the props for the show. The production’s atmospherically lit by Charles Blunt and nicely costumed by Hailey Rakowiecki. The upstage wall is a blank canvas upon which Brian Lawrie’s artistic moving projections appear from time to time, accented by Sarah D. Espinoza’s rousing music and sound design. They all help create the excitement and blinding polish of the business aspect behind this violent-looking sport.
The all-male ensemble cast is magnificent. Dave Honigman is terrific as the Referee. He’s both very funny and a talented gymnast, as well. Will Snyder skillfully plays several of the wrestling opponents, including Old Glory and The Bad Guy. Handsome Chicago newcomer Priyank Thakkar is smooth and sensuously catlike as VP. His quiet, eloquent command of character, particularly in the wrestling ring, provides a welcome contrast to the noisy commotion of the earlier bouts. Mickey O’Sullivan, who’s been seen on stages all over Chicago, is fierce and funny as EKO, the announcer and manager of THE Wrestling. Semaj Miller, who was a performing understudy for the original production at Victory Gardens, is sensational as Chad Deity. He deserves this chance to create his own version of the titular character and Semaj makes the most of his opportunity with his unlimited power and passion for the role.
But the star of this production is Alejandro Tey as Mace. This young actor opens and closes the play, easily taking the audience into his confidence, holding each spectator tightly in the palm of his hand and never letting go until the climax. He’s affable, honest, naturally warm and funny, and so relaxed and conversational with his stories and narration. Mr. Tey has all the flexibility and athleticism necessary to make his every movement as a wrestler seem realistic. He’s the real deal and easily turns into the audience’s trusted onstage surrogate in this new examination of what makes the American Dream come alive.
Kristoffer Diaz’s satire of the sport of professional wrestling is excellent. It’s a bit long-winded and could stand some trimming during the lengthier monologues. But the show is funny and exciting, gritty and gutsy and it easily holds the attention of its adult audience members. The characters are mesmerizing and, as portrayed by this gifted cast, topnotch athletes. The wrestling scenes appear authentic and are engrossing while the stories about growing up, with all their dreams and desires, feel honest and real. Director Jeremy Aluma and his cast and creative team have worked well together to capture the meticulous electricity of the wrestling world and bring it authentically to Chicago audiences.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented August 15-September 16 by Red Theater Chicago at the Strawdog Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-528-9696 or by going to www.redtheater.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.