The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity
Darleen Ortega | 10/19/2022, 3:42 a.m.
Kristoffer Diaz's play, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2010, is set in the world of professional wrestling where, as our guide Macedonio (Mace) Guerra explains, the job of the really skilled wrestlers is to make the mediocre ones look amazing. (That noticing reverberates for some of us beyond the world of professional wrestling--and it's meant to.) In the fictional world of THE Wrestling, that means Mace's regular gig is to lose spectacularly to the anointed champion, Chad Deity--and though both of them know the game is rigged, Chad treats the consequences (which include acclaim and cash for Chad but not for Mace) as legitimate. And, in a way, so does Mace--he understands his role and doesn't resent it, much.
Both Mace, who is Puerto Rican, and Chad, who is Black, are essentially employed as characters curated by Everett K. Olsen (or EKO), the CEO of THE Wrestling who capitalizes on racial stereotypes to whip up audience enthusiasm. Mace narrates aptly what is happening, and defends it enough that one can wonder who he is trying to convince. The only real justification is that this sells--and is that a justification?
In the course of the play, Mace finds hope and possibly a powerful kindred soul in Vigneshwa Paduar (VP), a Brooklyn man of Indian descent who energetically inhabits a variety of charismatic and comic personas. Mace decides to pitch VP to EKO as his next big wrestling star but EKO doesn’t see it as Mace is pitching it. Instead, EKO tumbles on the idea of casting VP as . . . the Fundamentalist, a terrorist challenger to Chad and to all that Americans hold dear. Mace, cast as a similarly menacing Mexican, will accompany the Fundamentalist to the ring as his manager.
The play's action is funny and swift and physical. It also is astute. Wrestling is depicted realistically, and as a particularly clear embodiment of how capitalism and American dream mythology trades and depends on racist stereotypes, mirroring our values back to us. Mace, in his hopeful way, seeks to enlist VP as a means of asserting more agency; he seeks a less confining place from which to operate. As the play unfolds, however, each of the three BIPOC wrestlers struggles uniquely with the limited roles they are offered.
Profile Theater's production, directed by its Artistic Director Josh Hecht, works on every level. The play is really funny, and a strong cast and tight direction deliver every laugh. La'Tevin Alexander plays Chad broadly; he preens and panders and wrests control of every moment of audience interaction, not visibly troubled by the dynamics at play. Naren Wiess is hilarious and unnerving as VP; he oozes charisma but has little patience for exploitation. Matthew Sepeda imbues Mace with intention and cajoles us into rooting for his doomed hopes; he is the emotional heart of the play. Watching these three size each other up and spar and play while being played is funny and complex and discomfiting; Duffy Epstein as Olsen leaves no doubt about who holds all the cards, and Levi Cooper employs his own history as a pro wrestler to lend the show's wrestling sequences authenticity, if one can use this context.
Pro wrestling is naturally suited for comedy, but playwright Kristoffer Dias also mines the form for insights about the endless ways in which capitalism employs racism and stereotypes to advantage a few at the expense of the many. Mace convinces himself he is happy losing, given how much he loves the sport--but over time that becomes less and less convincing. He sees in VP an opportunity to create a narrative that will imbue them both with more agency--but the ways their efforts are subverted, including by themselves, is very telling. And though Chad may appear to enjoy the most agency of the three, the play opens that to question , too.
The result is entertaining, and also disquieting in all the best ways. This is a show to prioritize; see it before it closes on October 23.
Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie and theater review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. Find her review blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.