TAMPA — The latest show at Stageworks Theatre promises much. The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, an exploration of professional wrestling, earned playwright Kristoffer Diaz recognition as a Pulitzer finalist by unifying two very different forms of theater.
For Stageworks producing artistic director Karla Hartley, doing the show in her hometown also connects Tampa with its recent past, as anyone who remembers Dusty Rhodes, the Great Malenko or the Briscoe brothers at Fort Homer W. Hesterly Armory can attest. The elaborate entrance to the show itself deepens these bona fides, with black-and-white photos in the lobby of wrestling legends supplied by none other than Mad Maxine (Jeannine Mjoseth), who attended opening weekend.
The vision behind it all — to "bring in audiences we had never seen before," Hartley said in a program note — seems both inspiring and achievable, especially given the arresting stage, an actual wrestling ring. Behind it, a montage of legends runs before the start of the show, from Andre the Giant to Hulk Hogan.
The result is something less than a full body slam. The narrative voice, through central character Macedonio "Mace" Guerra, is unusual and rich in insight. The drawback is for all of its noble intentions and a capable fight director in Dan Granke, this most physical of plays relies way too much on narration. That said, Chad Deity is still worth seeing.
It's worth seeing because Zander Morales reliably embodies the dilemma of being Mace, a Brooklyn native whose job is to make mediocre wrestlers look better than they are. With long-suffering patience, the wrestling journeyman watches stars ascend because he knew how to sell moves they didn't even make, ironically adding to his own reputation as a loser.
The beneficiary of Mace's professionalism, budding superstar Chad Deity, doesn't know much about wrestling but looks the part. He aims his smile at the cameras and flexes his pecs. He's brash but likable or, as Mace says, a "remarkably untalented freak of physical and charismatic nature." Brice Batemon is well cast as Chad, in part because he's a serious bodybuilder. Batemon stumbled through some lines and delivered others in flat uninspired paragraphs. A call-out speech against another wrestler, on the other hand, was drop-the-mic brilliant.
Leigh Simons plays promoter Everett K. Olson ("EKO"), who is adept at exploiting racial branding. A veteran sports documentary producer in real life, Simons is also at his best with a mic in his hand. He is the idea broker, a manipulator of fan fear and resentment. When Mace brings EKO the discovery he hopes will change his career, Vigneshwar Paduar ("VP"), EKO isn't convinced at first.
VP has no wrestling experience. But as a fellow Brooklynite from an Indian family, he is already expert in the multivariate fictions by which the culture navigates race and ethnicity. In a discussion, EKO rejects a couple of VP's initial ideas for his character, then settles on one of his own: "What wrestling needs right now is a Muslim fundamentalist."
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That recipe for chaos leads to some irreplaceable moments for Afsheen Misaghi as "the Fundamentalist," including a video clip of the wrestler's own elaborate entrance, surrounded by burning buildings and flanked by burqa-clad dancers. I won't spoil the rest.
Special mention should be made of Cornelio Aguilera as a utility infielder among wrestlers, including a generic masked villain and patriotic crowd pleasers such as "Billy Heartland." In brief appearances and at high speed, he runs through an amazingly condensed list of physical cliches, taking falls and begging for mercy. All of that is wonderful, as are the few moves the other wrestlers make as illustrations to a long-running voiceover, primarily by Mace.
The disappointment lies in the discontinuity between that ring and what happens inside it, a discursive lecture about racial and cultural stereotypes, and the marketing need to turn real and complex characters into one-dimensional fictitious ones. That's an interesting and timely subject, and the think-piece staging would fly in New York. In Tampa it feels like a promise undermined, at least when it comes to attracting new audiences. Those fans like to see action, and what they get here is mostly a lot of words.
Contact Andrew Meacham at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.