For years, boxing has provided raw symbolism, heart-pumping action, and emotional underdog stories for stage and screen writers alike. The brassy, teenage-boy-approved, choreographed spectacle of professional televised wrestling, on the other hand, is rarely deemed worthy of serving as dramatic fodder. So playwright Kristoffer Diaz and director John Vreeke are breaking new body-slamming, power-bombing ground with 2010 Pulitzer finalist The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, playing at Woolly Mammoth through September 30. Like its colorful subject matter, this satirical production is plenty entertaining, but you can’t help but feel that the onstage action isn’t quite the real thing.
At the center of the script is Mace (Jose Joaquin Perez), the endearing narrator and go-to loser in THE Wrestling League’s theatrical matchups. Fueled by his love of the “art” of pro wrestling, Mace is willing to overlook his profession’s glaring injustices. Perez’s performance is funny and perhaps the most layered of the cast, with a breezy but tough affect, and he often interacts directly with the audience. Similarly notable are the gravelly-voiced Michael Russotto as the league’s greedy head honcho and announcer, and Chad Deity himself, an imposing Shawn T. Andrew, who has the cocky, all-talk-and-no-talent showmanship of the league’s biggest name in a firm headlock. When Mace discovers a neighborhood kid (Adi Hanash) whose charisma rivals Deity’s, the two join forces in the ring, but they soon learn that buying into the league’s flashy professional ladder comes at sometimes bruising costs.
The “real” drop-kicking, chair-swinging action you’d recognize from the WWE doesn’t appear here until the second act, and consequently, earlier scenes feel a little dull by comparison. Expository monologues and dialogues could do more to flesh out characters and set up the jarringly raucous later parts. But the overarching uneven quality aside, the show delivers in tapping into that same draw that glues violence-happy prepubescents to Pay-Per-View Wrestlemania offstage: over-the-top personalities and bone-crunching moves. It’s a shame real-life pro wrestler James Long (playing multiple roles and serving as assistant fight choreographer) doesn’t enter the ring until after intermission. His scene-stealing theatrics elevate the testosterone-laden smackdowns and often-believable moves to a whole new level. In fact, the fight scenes in general are impressively gymnastic, with nearly each member of the five-man cast having his turn at laying out an opponent with a sickeningly loud thud.
Pulse-pounding maneuvers, a hip-hop soundtrack, and live and stock wrestling footage projected across the stark set create a distinctive mood; less concrete is the message and tone the show is going for. Strong performances help to distract from muddled commentary on consumerism, racial stereotypes, and cutthroat American values, though they can’t cancel out the blurriness completely. In scenes that could pack a powerful punch as satire, characters play it straight, and within the often ridiculous world of professional wrestling, the effect is significantly dulled. The Hulk Hogans and Dwayne “the Rock” Johnsons have an unspoken agreement with their fans: You accept what we’re doing is totally bogus, and we’ll give you an over-the-top clash of scripted good versus evil. Exploring and lampooning what that says about our society is what makes Chad Deity such a promising premise, and this a largely enjoyable show. It’s the terms of the production’s own bargain with its viewers that aren’t nearly as obvious.
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through September 30. Running time is two and a half hours, including a 15-minute intermission. Tickets ($35 and up) and are available via Woolly Mammoth’s website.