The Art of the Heel: ‘Chad Deity’ at barebones
In the traditional jargon of pro wrestling, bad-guy wrestlers are “heels.” Their role is to be hated while helping the good guys look good. And now comes a play about The Art of the Heel.
In The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, a wrestling promoter creates a pair of nightmarish heels—an Islamic terrorist and a Mexican bandit—so the number one hero, the incomparable Deity, can vanquish them.
There are plenty of satirical parallels to our country’s real-life political melodrama, and amazingly, the play predates the recent election cycle. It premiered in Chicago in 2009 and was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The local company barebones productions is staging it through Feb. 4. Act fast if you want to go because Chad Deity is a hot ticket.
A play like this one could easily turn into a heavy-handed clunker, the kind that starts with an idea worthy of a late-night comedy sketch and is dragged out to feature length. But that’s not what playwright Kristoffer Diaz did. He has written an engaging, complex story wrapped in a raucous spectacle. And barebones gets the show firing on all cylinders.
The House and the Man of the House
Chad Deity is presented in the gymnasium at the Ace Hotel, formerly a YMCA in East Liberty. This allows ample room for banked spectator stands (excuse me, audience seating) plus the big set that the show requires: a wrestling ring with jumbo video screens hung behind it. Also, the space has a high school-hoops atmosphere that invites you to scream and stomp along with the action, just as real fans of fake wrestling do. It is quite a sight to see a house full of sophisticated urban intellectuals swept up into playing such a role.
The actors play their parts seamlessly. They bring the characters to life in the interpersonal scenes that occur outside the ring. They’re also surprisingly adept inside it. These guys execute the holds, kicks, throws, and falls with whatever the macho word for panache is. Zip! Wham! Ooh! The posturing, preening, and mugging are spot-on.
Now, about that story. It’s told in a breaking-the-fourth-wall way. The character called Mace (Gil Perez-Abraham), one of the wrestlers, narrates directly to the audience while slipping in and out of the scenes. Mace is not a big-time star in this imaginary wrestling world, but he’s at the heart of the story. And Perez-Abraham, a great choice for the role, plays him as a friendly, cheerful fellow—one you’d like to hang out with and hear ramble.
The Action Figures, the Losers, the Cash
Chad Deity opens with Mace alone on the set reminiscing about his childhood. When he and his brothers were kids, growing up in a Hispanic family in the Bronx, they loved to put on little wrestling matches with their toy action figures of famous wrestlers. (This part of the tale is told elaborately and amusingly. Video close-ups of the various types of action figures are projected on the screens, as Mace comments on their suitability for play-wrestling purposes: You want the flexible ones that have articulated joints, not the stupid rigid ones.)
… And now, here is Mace himself, living the dream! There’s a slight catch. He’s a designated loser, always taking the fall. But that’s okay, because it takes skill to do it right—especially given that the big boy, Chad Deity (Javon Johnson), can’t actually wrestle. He’s just a stiff-jointed action figure who relies on the wiry Mace to make it look like he’s flinging his opponent around. (This too is demonstrated in detail, by the two men climbing into the ring to show us the finer points.)
Deity also demonstrates his signature victory celebration: pulling out wads of currency that he flings in the air while the crowds scramble to pick up the scattering bills. (Take it easy. They’re fake. And if you think the play is turning into an eerily close metaphor for the current state of our society, you are right.)
The Manager, the Indian Legend, the Unexpected
Then the plot thickens quickly. We meet the slick behind-the-scenes promoter, Everett K. Olson, a.k.a EKO (Patrick Jordan), who manages the whole charade. Entering next is the young man Mace has met on the streets of New York: Vigneshwar Paduar, a.k.a. VP (Nicola Slade), an Indian-American street legend in the making.
VP is a strapping dude with the visage of Adonis. He can hoop with best ballers on the playground and pick up girls in six languages. Mace, believing he’s found the next great wrestler, eagerly brings him in for an interview.
And then comes the catch that triggers a sequence of climactic twists. Whereas VP was hoping to be cast as a majestic Indian deity, a persona befitting his perfect personhood, EKO makes him a heel: The Fundamentalist, a mock-Islamic scourge with a sinister move called the Sleeper Cell Kick.
Adding further insult, Mace, who’d been hoping to bask in VP’s reflected glory, is cast as The Fundamentalist’s handler: a ludicrously nasty, sombrero-wearing mock-Mexican mastermind with the moniker Ché Chavez Castro.
The plan is for The Fundamentalist to knock off a series of all-American fall guys (played by Jared Bajoras in various costumes), thereby stoking the anger of the masses and their hunger for a summit match with Chad Deity, who will set the world aright. By now, the eerie parallels to current events are practically screaming.
But of course, the plan doesn’t go according to plan. What makes the play a zinger is that when things veer off track, they do so in an unexpected way that rings true.
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity ends with a particularly zinging one-liner, which I cannot reveal. Once you hear it, you won’t forget it.
Closing Credits and Ticket Info
Kristoffer Diaz’ The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is directed for barebones productions by Patrick Jordan, who in addition to playing EKO is also the company’s artistic director. The title for best bare-chested build is shared by Perez-Abraham, a lean and springy actor who appears to have achieved negative body fat, and Slade, the one to call if you need to have an automobile flipped upside down. Shane Douglas was wrestling consultant on Chad Deity.
Through Feb. 4 at the Ace Hotel, 120 S. Whitfield St., East Liberty. For showtimes and tickets visit barebones on the web or call 1-888-71-TICKET.
Photos are by Lou Stein.
Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, covers theater for Entertainment Central.