No religion. No politics. No wrestling. Apparently, there are only a few conversational topics more polarizing than professional wrestling at a polite dinner party.
A casual mention of a wrestling factoid (i.e. over ¼ of the performers at Wrestle Mania VII in 1991 have died in the past 20 years) can result in a surfeit of seemingly unwarranted reaction and emotional debate. Mild-mannered political consultants will leap from chairs to demonstrate entrance performances (the Undertaker); even-keeled photographers will relate woeful tales of misplaced childhood faith in the bad guys (Papa Shango).
We get it -- this is, indeed soap opera for bros. And, yes, we will concede that possibly this sport / performance art goes beyond Crisco-covered dudes getting all rubbie in their tights.
Given that The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity opened this week at the Geffen Playhouse, we're sure those excessive dinner-party wrestling passions or kayfabe-related childhood psychological-breaks will translate to healthy ticket sales. Kristoffer Diaz's 2009 play did extremely well in Chicago and New York and has that low-brow to high brow mash-up sensibility that shouldn't falter in a city like Los Angeles.
The play itself deals with the behind the scenes of a fictional WWE-esque company through the eyes of one of its wrestlers. Since its real theater and Pulitzer Prize nominated stuff to boot, Diaz's play has more to do with how Americans process wrestling and the reflective quality of its fake hijinx and manufactured spectacle -- all of which can be summarized through the most manufactured segment of the wrestler's act -- the elaborate entrance. For non fans, who have likely never seen such a thing -- what goes into an elaborate entrance?
Wrestling entrances tend give off that icky feeling that only Weimar era Germans tend to understand the full fruits of -- we all know this is manipulating the mindless fist-pump part of our inner lizard brain. But, as Bill Simmons has recently highlighted, they are as intricately discussable as any other form of sport or art. These entrance are, y'know, kinda exactly like the classic Comedia dell'arte: "Where's the fool, villain, or hero?" Long pause. Spotlight. Entrance.
There are some things that separate your average theatrical spectacle from the majesty and mystique of spandex-clad greased gladiators and Diaz's play makes good theater out of exactly these things.
There are eight elements that I can observe.
It starts with three basic ones:
8. Initial Entrance
Wrestlers, whether they be Heel or Face, have to play to a tiny bit of delayed gratification before they burst forth onto the entrance stage. There are your homespun lack-of-ceremony entrances for the humble Americana faces (think: wrestlers with normal names) to Rey Mysterio's seven to ten foot leaps from concealed trap doors. The ominous doom and gloom for your mysterious outlaw types and horror type characters comes into play here.
7. Ramp Entrance
With a sizable distance between stage and ring, there's occasion for ramp antics. The ramp, again with that Nuremberg feel, is the occasion to goose-step, traipse, lumber, march, or drive the distance from the initial stage to the ring itself. WWE superstars like Stone Cold Steve Austin have used mini monster trucks and thematic promotions have seen full ancient Egyptian extravaganza in ramp entrances. Like the condemned en route to the dock, this is also the occasion for villains to pelted with crap.
6. Ring Entrance
As the march concludes, the performer finds a creative way over, under, or through the ropes and begins the crowd-warming or unbridled braggadocio that will bring crowd frenzy to its apex. The pre-fight ring dance has space for what is basically a final flex, "Hey crowd, check out my pecs..." and a perhaps an actual speech.
Then there are other common elements, for which there are bonus points:
5. Nationalism / Racial Ethnic Hatred / Poor Understanding of Other Cultures
This is the main element from which Diaz's play draws most of its muster. Wrestling, of course, is all about basic good and evil. How can you appeal to the basest understandings of good vs. evil? Rampant nationalism of course. Characters like the Iron Sheik, and a pro-Saddam Hussein Sgt. Slaughter were among the most entertaining of wrestling's jingoism attempts. Over-the-top ethnic performances by "Japanese" Yokozuna and downright bizarre constructions like "Haitian" Papa Shango are the staples of wrestling's ethnic trappings. Diaz's villain is no different: his play features "The Fundamentalist," a bearded Arab.
4. Shitty Shitty Music
The average wrestler's playlist looks like the dollar bin at a mid-90s Sam Goody (they still have those, right?) -- Creed, Nickelback, Drowning Pool and every manner of "alt-rock" pseudo hit. For a good chunk of wrestling history, wrestlers have also used custom songs that often sound like rap-metal mash-ups or Walker Texas Ranger leitmotifs. There's also always the possibility of poorly applied bagpipes.
Yup. Fireworks, often indoors. Oh, and occasionally lasers. Also indoors.
How can the hero remove his entrance clothes and get down to mere tights without someone's help? Most wrestlers, like theatrical heroes, need a Helen or Penelope -- so that's why there are Ring Girls. Ring Girls (not Ring Women) provide that extra oomph to an entrance that says, "Not only am I rocking the fuck out and about to defeat evil incarnate, but I also always get this busty girl." Manboobs and girlboobs, apparently go, er, hand in hand?
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1. Occasional Real Life Death
Owen Hart is one of the only professional wrestlers to have died in the ring. He had set up an elaborate pratfall entrance from the rafters of Kansas City's Kemper Arena where he'd planned to tumble a short distance to the mat with a comic flop. Mistakes in the preparation of Hart's harness triggered an early release of the mechanism, causing him to fall 78 feet directly on to the ropes. He died on the mat from internal bleeding before he could be rushed to the hospital.
While not all entrances are the same, they share the same common threads of mindless crowd manipulation and emotionally charging pageantry that we all kind of find hard to resist. The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity uses those commonalities of wrestling theatrics as both a critical lens for and an homage to low-brow sensibilities for a high-brow audience -- finding, perhaps, that there's little difference between the two.