A Raw Nerve

Elaborately choreographed pantomime reveals a nation torn asunder

For a show to have been on tour for 14 straight years, running multiple shows a week and breaking only for Christmas, at which point it generally goes overseas and plays U.S. military bases, is nigh-unprecedented. So it's clearly filling some sort of psychic void in the zeitgeist. It's clearly a tightly run ship, too, when you consider that after one of the lead actors recently killed his family and himself, he was simply written out of the show, never to be mentioned again.

So what is it that makes the masses flock to this event, known as WWE Raw? Its lead actor John Cena (The Marine) didn't make much of a splash as a movie star, yet this July night at the Honda Center, we are told that an indoor-attendance record for the arena has been set. Perhaps it's because this show doesn't rely upon the typical movie dynamics of dialogue and close-up, but rather a kind of pantomime allegory almost bereft of speech.

The framing device is simple enough: a square stage surrounded by ropes is inhabited by two or more combatants representing the grander elements at stake in the world and assessed by a man in a striped shirt, who presumably represents the United Nations, as seen by the way most of the participants show disdain for him yet simultaneously rely on him to declare victory for one side or another.

The show opens with some of the night's only dialogue, spoken in French by a Canadian character named Sylvan (Sylvan Grenier) and his girlfriend, Maryse (Maryse Oullet). It's clearly an attempt to disorient the audience right of the bat, as no translation is offered. The crowd, which is generally encouraged to offer instant feedback, chants, "U.S.A.!" But then comes a twist: Rather than have an American emerge to vanquish Canada, we get a Mexican, albeit one who speaks enough English to utter the phrase "I am super! I am crazy! I am Super Crazy!" In an obvious metaphor for NAFTA, the representatives of our border neighbors battle it out, with hard-working, eager-to-please Mexican Super Crazy (Francisco Pantoja Islas) winning out over the excessively healthy, condescending neighbor from the north.

The next round of battle featured a character from a previous show, Hacksaw Jim Duggan (James Duggan), popular in the '80s as part of the same production company's WWF Superstars. Providing a link to the past, he carried a piece of lumber and a large American flag, representing old-fashioned hard work and family values, but linked to the present via friendship with the Sandman (James Fullington), a representative of contemporary culture with his darker attire, alcoholism and embrace of immigrant influences as manifested in his use of a kendo stick. Proving that the people united can never be defeated, they vanquished foes old and new—colonial Redcoat William Regal (Darren Matthews) and modern-day ungrateful immigrant Carlito (Carlos Colon Jr.).

A brief foray into opera came next—an interesting burst of high classism of which the fans surprisingly seemed to approve—heralding the entrance of an Italian, Santino Marella (Anthony Carelli). The classical entertainer was no match for his opponent, however, a man named Val Venis (Sean Morley), representing the more popular, lowbrow entertainment of pornography; similarly lascivious interest won out in a female battle, as Hollywood (represented by Melina Perez) fell to Playboy (cover girl Candice Michelle). Likewise, in a three-team event featuring acrobats (the troupe of Paul London and Brian Kendrick) and collegiate athletes (interracial partners Charlie Haas and Shelton Benjamin), both were bested by avatars of country music—a partnership between arrogant cowboy Cade (Lance Cade) and brutish redneck Murdoch (Trevor Rhodes). The message was clear—style and education count for nothing.

Still, like the war in Iraq, what began as an evening of rah-rah triumphalism became more ambiguous and less of a fait accompli as the night went on. A savage, dark-skinned foreigner named Umaga (Eddie Fatu) squashed the hip, youthful Jeff Hardy. The country divided against itself, as the obviously Republican former Army sergeant Bobby Lashley fought hard with a gentleman (Ken Anderson) who rather unsubtly went on and on about how his name was Kennedy. And the final battle was loaded with mixed messages and divided sympathies, muddied even further by the fact that for once, both characters used the real-life names of the actors portraying them. Randy Orton appeared a clean-cut, military type, but what to make of all his tribal tattoos? And rival John Cena wore baggy denim shorts and slovenly sneakers, but also sported a Marine haircut and saluted the fans. Which is the enemy, and which is the friend? Exactly. Just like the quagmire we face overseas, we as a nation can no longer tell if we are the good guy or the bad guy. The presence of an explicitly Hawaiian referee named Ricky Steamboat (Richard Blood), who gets sneak-attacked, only muddies the waters by bringing to mind Pearl Harbor—and the fact that unlike on that day in 1941, we now pursue the wrong foes.

Concluding the show with a monologue was an odd bit of dramatics, but it masterfully summed up the show's theme, as John Cena recalled his glorious past and speculated that his time on top might shortly be coming to an end. One could consider this a painful set-up for a sequel; I prefer to think of it as a challenge—to the audience and our nation.

WWE Raw tours nationally. Check wwe.com for dates and times.

 
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