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By John Moore
Nov. 12, 2013
Opening No 131: Curious Theatre’s “Rancho Mirage”: Colorado native Steven Dietz’s latest play continues Curious’ entire season of evident if perhaps unintentional looks at dysfunctional family relationships. Here, six longtime “friends” (?) gather for one final dinner party. The evening unfolds with comic surprises, alarming secrets and near-farcical bombshells. Also featuring Erik Sandvold, Emily Paton Davies, C. Kelly Leo, David Russell, Karen Slack and Devon James. Directed by Christopher Leo. Dietz is now the most produced playwright in Curious history. Dietz also wrote “Jackie & Me,” which will be performed by the Denver Center Theatre Company, opening Nov. 15. “Rancho” showtimes: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 7 at 1080 Acoma St., 303-623-0524 or Curious’ web page. Thanks: Sean Cummings, Kate Marie.
“It’s been a year … did you miss me, Denver?” “Rancho Mirage” marks oft-honored freakyman actor Bill Hahn’s return to the stage since last appearing at Curious in “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.” Here, he plays a freakily normal-seeming suburban husband. Which, for Bill, is, you know … freaky.
The new Denver Actors Fund is a modest source of immediate, situational relief when members of the local theater community find themselves in sudden medical need. To donate to the Denver Actors Fund, please go here (with our humble thanks):
You might think it’s a gimmick — “the wrestling play” that offers up live theater as a violent, full-contact sport.
Oh, it is, how “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” whips the Curious Theatre crowd into a frenzy worthy of Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
The way the opening-night crowd was hooting and hollering — live theater should (always) be so lucky.
The set is a wrestling ring, and in it, a remarkable cast of actors and real-life wrestlers deliver their share of clotheslines, butt drops and cannon balls. But the real body-slam is how playwright Kristoffer Diaz’s wholly original, Pulitzer-nominated story explores the underbelly, artifice and undeniable childlike appeal of professional wrestling with its simple, caricatured characters and predetermined storylines that crassly tap into its fans’ primal nationalism, bloodlust and ignorant fear of the unknown. Like, say, Muslims.
As they sing in “Avenue Q,” “everyone’s a little but racist,” and in a post-9/11 America, we might be more than a little bit racist when it comes to Muslims — America’s bogeyman for the 21st century.
Patrick Byas as Chad Deity. Photo by Michael Ensminger
It’s all told in a sweet, seductive way. Our endearing narrator is “Mace” Mendoza. His childhood dream was to grow up to be a professional wrestler, and now he is. But not the way he dreamed. Instead he’s an essential but lowly piece of the wrestling corporation food chain – he’s paid to lose, so that others might win. Others as in champion Chad Deity, a god-like rock of a man modeled after that ultimate modern wrestling cartoon, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Exploitative promoter Everett K. Olson is a cutting iteration of real-life wrestling magnate Vince McMahon. E.K.O.’s only concern is making money, even if it perpetuates the basest of racial stereotypes. And his ultimate opportunity comes when he uses Mace to transform Vigneshwar Paduar — a brash, hip-hop Brooklynite of Indian descent — into “The Fundamentalist,” a Middle Eastern terrorist costumed in a full robe, turban and beard. His wrestling m.o. is to hide in the shadows, showing himself only long enough to deliver a signature kill move called “The Sleeper Cell.” This too, is based on one of McMahon’s most controversial, real-life wrestling inventions. Several times during the night, we are encouraged to go home and google Muhammad Hassan, a.k.a Mark Magnus.
It’s a lucrative but reprehensible scheme, sure to whip up harmful anti-Arab prejudices. And suddenly we have a real play on our hands.
“Lets get ready to rumble!”
Even though the play, and the sport it satirizes, are unapologetic gimmicks, this work is a significant commentary on ingrained and inflamed racial bias in 2012 America. And coming from the theater company that brought you “Nine Parts of Desire,” “Homebody/Kabul” and “Clybourne Park,” it’s not far-fetched to suggest that “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” is the next logical extension of those conversations. Only it’s a lot more fun.
Seriously: “Nine Parts of Desire” introduced audiences to the suffering and resilience of Iraqi women both before and because of “Bush’s War.” “Chad Deity” uses women in burkas as ringside props like boxing uses sexy round-card babes. “Homebody/Kabul” laid out a means for the global understanding of an Afghan landscape that, as “Chad Deity” makes plain, remains stubbornly unfamiliar to Western eyes. “Clybourne Park” talked about how far we have perhaps not come in terms of race in America. “Chad Deity” shows how the E.K.O.’s of the world profit from it.
There is some remarkable work in every corner of the ring, from director Chip Walton’s casting of proven vet William Hahn as the promoter to the chiseled and magnetic Patrick Byas in the title role to Akshay Kapoor as the Indian-turned-Fundamentalist to — emphatically — the warm and welcoming Michael Lopez as our narrator, Mace. There are distinct roles in the theatrical canon, such as the lugubrious Barfee in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” that are so specific to certain actors’ innate charm and physical characteristics that those actors could play them from town to town for the next 10 years. Byas and Lopez live in the skins of their characters in that kind of way. It’s all the more remarkable that Byas, from New York, and Lopez, from California, are creating their roles for the first time here.
This is also just the latest monumental technical achievement for Curious, including scenic design (Charlie Packard), costumes (Ann Piano), lighting (Shannon McKinney) and, most especially, sound and video design (Brian Freeland and Mitch Dickman), who effectively create a big-arena, rock-concert setting in a relatively small theater.
There is one inherent and unavoidable conflict of (our) interest here. We in effect are double-cast as both audience to the play and audience to the live, made-for-TV wrestling spectacles our smarmy promoter stages. Realizing the full, “turn the mirror on ourselves” intent of the playwright is dependent on the need to manufacture a full audience frenzy in favor of all-American patsies like Billy Heartland and Old Glory, a couple of saps who serve as roadkill on The Fundamentalist’s road to a title bout with Chad Deity. But by then, the playwright has delivered a “testicular claw” upon us. We’re so solidly in the corner of the “foreign wrestlers,” we’re cheering for The Fundamentalist — or, more specifically, on the side of the Indian character named VP who plays him.
VP, it turns out, is a truly 2012, all-American character we kind of hope, in the end, will deliver a chair right across the head of his mercenary promoter. The playwright has something else in mind. But when the audience catches itself rooting for the fake terrorist, an intentionally uncomfortable feeling kind of prevails. It’s this notion of, “I know who I’m rooting for … but I don’t know if it’s OK for me to cheer for him out loud.”
This all makes for thought-provoking, blood-pumping, high-decibel theater that manages to deliver a “Sleeper Cell” of a punch. … Not to mention: Live wrestling at intermission.
Michael Lopez as Mace-turned Mexican rebel anti-American and Akshay Kapoor as VP (“The Fundamentalist”). Photo by Michael Ensminger.