After five minutes of groin stretches and jumping rope, the actor Desmin Borges was ready to start morning rehearsal with a bit of choreography known as the sit-fall. A standard theater dance this was not: The sit-fall is a professional-wrestling technique whereby Mr. Borges would pretend to go down -- hard -- after a fake hit from an opponent. Mastering the move is crucial to avoid injury, especially for a wiry actor like Mr. Borges who lacks the beefy muscles that help wrestlers absorb body blows.
Marilynn K. Yee/The New York TimesWrestling rehearsals for "The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity," coming to Second Stage. The actor Desmin Borges is far left; the fight director David Woolley, far right.
Trailer: 'The Elaborate Entrance
of Chad Deity' (YouTube.com)
Marilynn K. Yee/The New York TimesFrom left, the actors Desmin Borges and Usman Ally and the fight director David Woolley.
Standing on padded mats with his fellow actors from the new Off Broadway play "The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity," Mr. Borges crouched low, bent his knees at a 90-degree angle and tucked his chin to his chest before hurling himself backward. Landing with a thud, he let out a deep, exaggerated groan.
"That's not a groan," the fight director, David Woolley, said. "I want to hear you groan!" Mr. Borges complied, as if he'd been sucker-punched in the gut.
"Beautiful, beautiful!" Mr. Woolley exulted. "Now that's acting genius."
Mr. Borges stood and smiled. "At some point we'll actually start saying dialogue," he said offhandedly to a reporter. "But if we don't get things like the sit-fall exactly right, I'll be too busy craving Advil to think clearly about my lines."
For the cast of "Chad Deity," a comic drama about identity politics and pro wrestling that opens at Second Stage Theater on Thursday, perfecting the phony wrangling in the ring has required skills they never contemplated in acting school. But refining each wrestling move has also been serious -- and sometimes injury-inducing -- work for the actors, given the production's ambitions to create the most physically theatrical metaphor on a New York stage this season.
A finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in drama, "Chad Deity" uses wrestling and a melting pot of black, white, Puerto Rican and Indian-American characters to examine issues of good versus evil in a world of shifting racial and cultural allegiances. In a 12-foot-by-12-foot ring that dominates the set at Second Stage, wrestlers with names like Old Glory and Billy Heartland battle against combatants like the Fundamentalist (a turban-clad terrorist) and Che Chavez Castro (Mr. Borges's character), who describes himself as "denouncer of all things American."
Overseeing them all is the white owner of THE Wrestling, a fictional stand-in not only for the real World Wrestling Entertainment corporation, but also for what the play posits as a capitalist, imperialist system (read: the West) that demonizes Muslim and Hispanic men and reduces a black man to a bling-wearing musclehead.
"There's clearly an agenda in the play that goes far, far beyond a look at the world of wrestling, but the play will succeed or fail partly on audience members' believing that these characters are professional wrestlers and not simply political symbols," said Kristoffer Diaz, the play's 32-year-old author. "That's why we spent so much of rehearsal working on wrestling moves and on the wildly colorful entrances that wrestlers make to the ring."
"It's the construction and deconstruction of images, in both wrestling and in the world we live in now, that the actors and the play are going for," Mr. Diaz added during an interview with the play's actors and its director, Edward Torres. Mr. Torres also oversaw the play's critically acclaimed debut at the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago this winter.
One of the cast members, Michael T. Weiss, who portrays the wrestling syndicate owner Everett K. Olson, said he viewed the play as less about wrestling than about the frustrations of men who are pitted against one another by a system that seeks to profit from antagonism and conflict.
"The wrestling shouldn't scare off audience members; the sport actually proves to be a great backdrop for a really smart, intellectual piece of theater," said Mr. Weiss, who is best known as the star of the former NBC series "The Pretender." "I mean, would any old play about wrestling become a finalist for a Pulitzer?"
Metaphors were a secondary concern, though, as rehearsals began in April in New York. Just as professional wrestlers regularly attend training camps through their careers to drill moves for the ring, the actors in "Chad Deity" spent the first week of rehearsals lifting weights at a Midtown New York Sports Club and then practicing what one cast member, Christian Litke, called "our wrestling ballet."
Terence Archie, who plays the title character of the play, said he gained 15 pounds of muscle from weightlifting and a diet of protein-powder drinks, glucose optimizers and other supplements from GNC, the sports nutrition retailer, which donated hundreds of dollars' worth of products to the cast.
"Having large muscles is essential to not getting hurt onstage, because the muscles create safe places across your body where you can take a contact hit and the pain gets absorbed in a flash," Mr. Archie said.
Ice packs and Ibuprofen, usually the balm of dancers, were scattered around the rehearsal room at Second Stage this spring. The actors have endured sprains to their back muscles, ankles, knees and groins, as well as daily aches from body slams. At an early rehearsal in April, Shawn Andrew, one of the play's understudies, was left dazed and dizzy after making a difficult wrestling move, known as the powerbomb, in which he used his back and leg muscles to hoist an actor onto his shoulders before dropping him onto the ring's mat. During that rehearsal, the two men's bodies were misaligned, putting dangerous pressure on Mr. Andrew's neck. The rehearsal paused for several minutes as the fight director, Mr. Woolley, checked him over and helped him to a seat, where he soon recovered. (A spokesman for the production said that Mr. Andrew subsequently left the show for reasons unrelated to the incident.)
Mr. Diaz, the playwright, said the highly physical nature of the production required not only careful choreography but also attention to breathing, because the actors moved quickly from dexterous combat to swiftly paced dialogue.
"Probably the hardest part of this that I've seen is making the guys wrestle for three minutes and then say 200 words from the script immediately after fighting," Mr. Diaz said. "The cast has to learn where to take a breath without turning it into some big actorly moment where it sounds like they're taking theatrical pauses."
Mr. Borges, who, as the play's main character and narrator, Mace, speaks the most onstage, said that simply learning how to breathe steadily and without obvious effort in "Chad Deity" has been the most difficult physical challenge in his acting career.
"There was a moment the other night when I thought I was going to faint onstage," Mr. Borges, 27, said. At that performance, he recalled, he took one quick gulp of air as he finished a page of dialogue before returning to hand-to-hand combat in the next scene.
"I grew up watching wrestling, like a lot of us in the show did, and it's important to me to look strong and steady just like the pro wrestlers did," he continued. "But those wrestlers were lucky -- they may have been doing their own kind of theater, in television wrestling, but they didn't have to talk about nearly as many ideas as we do in this play."