BOSTON — There are those rare moments in the theater when the audience is so spellbound that people are breathing as one. But Company One’s sensational production of “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” features something even rarer — an audience so spellbound that it chants in unison: “POW-ER-BOMB! POW-ER-BOMB! POW-ER-BOMB.”
Company One ends each season with a summer production and that’s the least of its claims of being a nontraditional theater. When you hear that a theater wants to open its doors to a more diverse audience the result often leaves much to be desired. Not this time. “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” (through Aug. 25 at the Roberts Theatre) is not only an excellent, enormously entertaining play, but the Company One production fully justifies the whole notion of the virtues of going the extra mile to search for more diverse artists — actors as well as writers.
Playwright Kristoffer Diaz also happens to be a huge wrestling fan and he unites both passions seamlessly in a play that feels as much like a wrestling match as it is theater. Of course, professional wrestling is theater — bad theater — playing on ethnic stereotypes, xenophobia, macho posturing, and featuring the most cardboard characters imaginable. None of which prevents it from being more popular than all the plays on Broadway — combined.
Diaz’s genius is to simultaneously celebrate its flashy entertainment value while sending up its prejudices. And, as if that’s not enough, Diaz uses the “sport” as a parable of realizing the American Dream. Artistic director Shawn LaCount’s great contribution to the cause is, first, to have the chutzpah to stage such a daunting play — complete with authentic video-art intros to the wrestling matches and hyper-athletic demands on the actors — and then take a year to find just the right ensemble.
And what an ensemble. Ricardo Engermann is Macedonia Guerra (Mace), the narrator of the piece, a great wrestler who’s been relegated to also-ran status. His job is to make wrestlers like the African-American Chad Deity look better than they are. Mace does all the athletic falling when he’s flipped, Chad just leans forward. Chris Leon is Chad, whose primary virtues are his charisma, his trash-talking and perhaps the most daunting pecs in the universe. Jake Athyal is Vigneshwar Paduar (VP), a Brooklyn-born Indian-American hip-hopper whom Mace takes under his wing while trying to convince Peter Brown’s delightfully sleazy Everett K. Olson (Eko), the head of THE Wrestling (any similarity to WWE is purely intentional), that VP is the next big thing. Mike Webb, a professional wrestler, rounds out the cast as a variety of sacrificial victims and bad guys.
Some of the wrestlers might be charisma-challenged; none of the actors is. (Let’s also mention Brian Fury, a wrestler who helped LaCount and the actors stage the fights with such stunning precision.)
Eko, too, is struck by VP’s charisma, but his reaction is to make him a Muslim-American-hating fundamentalist with Mace recast as his lefty spokesman, Che Chavez Castro. You can imagine the fun that Diaz, an excellent humorist, has with that, even if his intentions are serious. The power structure dictates how people behave and how they sell their souls, but the average Joe or Jose has to go along with it to make it work. And though the argument is reductionistic it works within the dynamics of the play. One of the characters — I won’t say which — is as beaten down by the system as is Willy Loman by the play’s end.
Diaz wrote the play when he was feeling beaten down by the theatrical system. He shouldn’t have to worry about that anymore. “Chad Deity” won the Obie and was a Pulitzer finalist losing out to “Next to Normal” in a controversial decision. (I would have voted for “Chad.”) Now the whole theater world is waiting for what Diaz does next.