There are kids who enjoy professional wrestling for action-packed stories of good guys versus bad guys. There are lowbrow adults who like seeing people beat each other up too. But there are also high-brow artsy types who appreciate professional wrestling in a special way. The characters are broad, the stories are simplistic, and it requires a massive suspension of disbelief from the audience, but it’s still a form of story-telling, and audience members who are in on the gag can enjoy it as a form of performance art.
The storyline and fictional reality of wrestling is called “Kayfabe” and those in the industry will go to great lengths to avoid breaking kayfabe. Unlike other artforms, wrestlers will stay in character even when outside the ring. They promote their shows in character, arrive and depart the venue in character, and avoid doing anything that would shatter the illusion for fans.
The new play Breaking Kaybafe in the NYC Fringe festival gives outsiders a look inside the world of professional wrestling. It uses a framing device in which a retired wrester Barry Dorchester (Played by Adam Swiderski) is being interviewed by a wrestling fan years after his retirement. Barry looks back on his career in wrestling, all the while avoiding discussion of “An incident” that occurred near the end of his time as a wrestler.
Barry was once known as The Suicide Bomber (Among other silly monikers like The Disco Kid). He went from a talented newcomer to the champion of a major wrestling organization, making friends and enemies along the way. As he discusses his life a projection screen on the upstage wall translates the wrestling jargon for the audience. Theater fans who don’t know much about wrestling will slowly be informed bout kayfabe, “Faces” and “Heels”, and the way that a wrestling organization works.
People who already understand the behind the scenes world of wrestling will find Breaking Kayfabe to be a love letter to the artform. As Barry recounts his most famous matches a team of wrestlers takes the stage and acts out the events. Luke Guldan plays the younger Barry and he fights Dale Thomas and Christopher Baron who each play a swarm of other wrestlers including a feral wildman, a masked marvel, and an evil foreigner!
The fight choreography (By “The Greek God” Papadon) is a spectacle to behold. The wrestlers slam each other right on stage, perform outlandish submission holds, and play out Barry’s past just like a live WWF show complete with bloody finishing moves.
Adding an extra touch of authenticity is Brian Silliman as Rawlston Redman, a wrestling commentator. His performance is an uncanny mimicry of the easily excited commentators seen throughout the wrestling world. As Barry and his foes throw each other around the ring, Silliman gives a play-by-play filled with lines like “This kid is tougher than a two-dollar steak!”
The script, by writer/director Temar Underwood, is full of such little nods to wrestling’s overblown drama. Barry as The Suicide Bomber taunts his enemies with showboating speeches, but there is also a subtlety to Underwood’s work. Part of the story involves Barry’s reluctance to discuss a certain event. At the start of his interview there is a six-pack of beer on the floor and, as the interview progresses, Barry makes his way through all six bottles of brew until he’s tipsy enough to discus the traumatic incident. This is done with a great deal of subtlety, and this little bit of business highlights the theme of substance abuse that runs through the script.
If Breaking Kayfabe has any stumbling points, it’s is the excessively serious turn that it takes near the end when Barry finally confronts the worst of his past sins. It’s a fun, energetic show that takes a very abrupt turn to the maudlin.
However the hour and a half preceding this denouement should delight audiences who were once little Hulkamaniacs, and it will prove to be educational for people who can’t imagine why grown-ups attend Wrestlemania. Unfortunately, Breaking Kayfabe closed its run in the NYC Fringe Festival this weekend, but information on future performances can be found at www.breakingkayfabe-play.com.