08 September 2012

Chad Deity enters the Aurora, elaborately

A couple of Thursdays ago I was in Berkeley seeing a play with an all-female cast and then the Tuesday after I was back in Berkeley seeing a play with an all-male cast. It seems as if there should be some larger cultural meaning to this, but I don't think there is; I think it's merely one of those odd striking coincidences that look significant but are just haphazard. Both plays actually dealt more with class and cultural grouping than with gender.

Anyway the play with the all-male cast was The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, a very recent (2010) work by Kristoffer Diaz, directed by Jon Tracy at the Aurora. It's set in the world of professional wrestling, so right there I'd like to commend the Aurora for taking it on, as I'm doubtful most of their regular audience has ever seen any wrestling matches outside of Orlando and Charles in As You Like It. Back when I lived in Boston the two main local companies were the Huntington, near Symphony Hall in Boston, and ART, the American Repertory Theater, in Harvard Square. The latter had the reputation as the more daring and experimental theater, but I used to disagree when people would say this, on the grounds that it was more daring for the Huntington to present Congreve to their more mainstream audience than it was for ART to present Beckett and Ionesco to their Harvard crowd. A play that takes professional wrestling as its prism on American life is as they say these days outside the wheelhouse of the typical Aurora audience. But most of them seemed not only open to it but to enjoy it thoroughly, though there were a couple of defections at intermission. One woman near me who was enjoying the show but hadn't been to the theater before asked me if this play was typical of what the Aurora did. I said, "Well, they're saying 'fuck' a lot more often than they do in most of the plays here," which amused her, as it was intended to.

If you haven't been to the Aurora before, it's a very small theater, with four rows of seats in a U-shape around a central stage. There were platforms in the back part of the stage but the central stage area was mostly taken up by a large ring. As we entered there were flashing red, white, and blue lights and flashy video projections on the back. Dave Maier, who was not only the Fight Director but also played several characters in the play, stood in the ring before the show and warmed up the crowd with a steady stream of comical patter, calling one large guy with big arms "Hercules" and pretending that a young woman was defeating him with her stare. He brought up a couple of volunteers from the audience and gave them quick, whispered instructions on a few pro-wrestling moves, which he then very convincingly pretended had knocked him flat. The first was a lanky teenage boy in a hoodie. The second was a tiny older woman who looked both fragile and enthusiastic. He gave each of them stage names. I forget what the teenager was called, but the woman had red hair - as someone shouted out, "She's a red-headed woman!", which made me think of Crown's song from Porgy and Bess - so I think he called her the Flamethrower. It was all very good-humored and cleverly brought the audience into the spirit of the world we were about to enter. (I did not have the usual dread and anxiety I have whenever I am threatened with any sort of audience participation.) The brief matches with the audience volunteers not only got the audience involved before the play even started, they actually helped illustrate a major theme of the play - how the "loser" of these scripted wrestling matches actually has to be a better wrestler and a better actor, using all his skill and knowledge to make it look as if the charismatic but less skilled hero is doing the work.

The scripted loser of these matches, and our Virgil through the world of pro wrestling, is Macedonio "The Mace" Guerra (Tony Sancho), a charming and talented athlete-actor who is serious about the heritage and artistic possibilities of his profession (and why not? it's completely theater). Guerra is Puerto Rican, and grew up poor in America. He ends up recruiting a smooth-talking Indian, Vigneshwar Paduar (Nasser Khan), whose patter on the basketball court had entranced Guerra's older (and less thoughtful) brothers. Their ethnic identities are crucial to the persona created for them in the arena, often as negative stereotypes (Paduar gets cast as an vaguely Middle Eastern terrorist and Guerra as a Mexican revolutionary and probably illegal immigrant, though both men want to use the story-telling possibilities of wrestling to tell different, positive stories about their people). They wrestle against various super-patriotic whites (Billy Heartland and ex-Marine Old Glory, played by Dave Maier), but the ultimate prize is the hero of the arena, Chad Deity himself. Interestingly, since this is a play very much about ethnicity/cultural stereotypes and power in America, Chad (Beethovan Oden) is a black man, whose glittering overblown boasting hides a canny, perceptive mind. But the real power behind the wrestling organization, though not exactly its brains, is a white man, Everett K. "EKO" Olson (Rod Gnapp), whose main skill (and it's not an insignificant one) is to know almost intuitively which emotional/political buttons to push to separate his audience from their money.

The whole cast is excellent, though I should single out Tony Sancho as Guerra, since he carries most of the burden of wrestling as well as narration. It's a very high-energy show, with, as you might imagine, lots of wrestling, some of it elaborately choreographed, and with lots of oversized personalities and big moments, but the actors keep their characters this side of caricature (so kudos to director Jon Tracy as well). Diaz constructs the story very skillfully, giving us enough background in wrestling so that we can read it as more than just a couple of guys in tights tossing each other around, showing us what drives these men to do what they do, and giving us enough insight into the psychology of the wrestling audience as well as the wrestling organization itself so that after Paduar goes off-script in the ring, when Guerra thinks EKO is going to be furious, we can guess that he's wrong, because of the audience's response to Paduar.

It's a very entertaining play. But there were a few moments when Guerra reminded me of the old Mad TV skit in which a proud Latino waiter would give detailed, historically informed recitations of his people's glorious culture to groups of clueless white Americans who only wanted to order cheap pseudo-Mexican food or get blasted on Cinco de Mayo or something like that. The thing is, though I recognize the importance and value of ethnic uplift, I just do not respond to it artistically; I find it limiting (anytime uplift is your main goal, you're going to have to omit a lot of reality). Guerra's impoverished but dignified Puerto Rican family is swiftly and expertly drawn in his story-telling, but doesn't he realize that his narrative of strong and proud families is ultimately just as contrived and regulated, and even stereotypical, as the wrestling narratives he objects to about patriotic "real" Americans fighting evil foreigners? What really struck me about Guerra's position in the wrestling world had nothing to do with ethnicity - he's someone we've all seen, or perhaps have been, in any corporation - he's the hard-working, hard-luck employee whose skill and dedication get things done, but whose type of intelligence and personality exclude him from stardom. In short, I think Guerra would have had a similar story no matter what his ethnic background, which is one of the reasons I find identity politics limiting and ultimately pointless. Still, there's enough other stuff going on here so that I'd recommend the show. It runs through 30 September; more information here.


Civic Center said...

In the 1970s I was stuck in a cheap motel in Acapulco, Mexico that was next door to a small arena which specialized in boxing and "lucha libre," aka wrestling. I bought a cheap ticket for standing room in the fourth-floor balcony and the stage sounds very much like the Aurora except all four floors were completely surrounded the ring, rather like an operating theatre.

The afternoon was one of the most bizarrely entertaining pieces of theater I have ever experienced, and though the winners and losers were obviously scripted, there was lots of improvisation within that script, with players (and audience) occasionally going off script altogether. The final bout was women's wrestling, which turned out to be the most vicious. When it dissolved at the end into a free-for-all among the wrestlers and the first floor audience all swinging at each other, I thought the event had gone completely off the rails, but the young man standing next to me who kept buying me beers all afternoon acted as if it was the most natural denouement possible, and he filed out of the arena with everyone else thoroughly satisfied.

Somehow I doubt that the Aurora Theatre production would hold up to such vibrant memories, and if you don't have the first row of the audience jumping in with fisticuffs at some point, the event wouldn't feel properly autentico. But that's just me.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Actually we were encouraged to chant or clap along at several points, when various heroes or villains entered the ring, but . . . it just wasn't really that kind of audience. There is a bit in Guerra's explanation to us about the importance of the mask in Hispanic wrestling. But I think this is clearly a view into this world for people who wouldn't otherwise see it, as opposed to a slice of the real thing, such as you had.