Before The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity begins, two wrestlers for hire go through their motions in a ring onstage, writhing with pseudo-pain after every ear-piecing slam on the forgiving mat. It's a tone-setting juxtaposition of lowbrow entertainment in a highbrow theater, and it's brilliant. Buttoned-down spectators are expected to cheer, clap, boo, and hiss with every move, like the sign-carrying adolescents who have made Vince McMahon a fortune. Damned if we weren't attuned to the show's wavelength within a few body slams, engaged by its interactivity before the opening curtain.
From there, the cheeky story is a wry, smart, and self-effacingly witty deconstruction of the wrestling world. Presented in a fourth-wall-shattering storytelling fashion and punctuated by punchy interactions, the play is narrated by Macedonio Guerra, AKA Mace (Brandon Morris). Mace is a lower-tier wrestler in the fictional THE Wrestling federation. In industry jargon, he's a "jobber" — meaning a talented craftsman who helps promotes marquee wrestlers by artfully losing to them. It's a breathless, breakthrough turn for Morris, exposing how the pro-wrestling sausage is made with the perfect mixture of enthusiastic pride and stupefying self-awareness. He recites his lines with the spontaneity of someone who's just thinking this stuff up for the first time.
The wrestler he's most often taking the fall for is Chad Deity (Donte Bonner), the Hulk Hogan of THE: a jingoistic vessel of empty charisma and dancing abs who couldn't power-bomb a worm without the worm's assistance. In a role that is flash over substance, Bonner finds the substance in the flash.
Morris' Mace is a content yeoman in the wrestling world, but everything changes when he meets Vigneshwar Paduar (Adam Bashian), a brash Indian-American basketball hustler whom Mace thinks can become the next THE superstar — so long as Everett K. Olsen (Gregg Weiner), the federation's shameless president, can find a profitable hook.
The Elaborate Entrance, which was nominated for a Pulitzer, makes its southeastern premiere at the Caldwell. Tim Bennett's set design is straight out of Monday Night Raw, with a wrestling ring stationed in front of a walkway leading from automatic, sliding metal doors enhanced with smoke and lights and bookended by giant projection screens — the stuff of countless elaborate entrances by countless musclebound wrestlers the world over. The set even extends into the lobby, where wrestling posters cover walls and a merch table hawks wrestling action figures.
That said, this is the kind of the show in which you come for the pro wrestling and stay for the social commentary. The Elaborate Entrance is a great play for the same reason Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle was such a surprisingly successful comedy: It's a politically incorrect satire that uses its juvenile premise to critique xenophobia and puncture American exceptionalism and egocentricity. Wrestling, of course, has always been a hotbed of offensive cultural stereotypes. Was the Iron Sheik really the image of Arabs we should have projected on impressionable children? Was Yokozuna a fair representation of the respected Japanese sumo tradition?
By the time Olsen has meted out the characters for Vigneshwar and the rebranded Mace — the former is a nondescript Islamist terrorist called the Fundamentalist and the latter a bongo-carrying amalgam of brown-skinned revolutionaries named Che Chavez Castro — the play has more than made its point. But the laughs continue to spill forth like the ersatz hundred-dollar bills Chad Deity rains down on the audience. And hey, who said pro wrestling was supposed to be subtle?