Entering Marrickville’s entertainment complex The Factory always evokes anticipation of the unexpected, a rough-hewn conglomeration of small venues, known for its diverse programming of bands, comedy festivals and sundry offbeat shows. “Offbeat” is certainly one way to frame Cantina Brawl, although that is only from the perspective of its novelty value for Australians. In Mexico, this would be about as mainstream a form of entertainment as it gets.
For those not in the know, lucha libre is the unique Mexican version of professional wrestling, the form of “sports entertainment” best known in the USA for the famous WWE brand. Following the same broad principles of highly athletic and melodramatic staged wrestling, performers adopt larger-than-life stage personae to compete in matches with predetermined outcomes and exaggerated, theatrically feigned violence. In America, “pro-wrestling” is a huge industry, but one often condescendingly derided as worthlessly lowbrow – described alternately as a “fake sport” for children, in reference to its choreographed nature, or as “soap opera for dudes”, due to its often elaborate ongoing storylines of macho feuds, factions, and unexpected betrayals.
Lucha Libre is not dissimilar to this American style in many regards, and although seen primarily as a lower-class entertainment, it does by all accounts have a far wider audience base, appealing across diverse age groups, across gender lines, and having true family appeal. The tradition also exhibits through a wide demographic range, playing everywhere from tiny local arenas to huge sports stadiums, as well as on television. Aside from its broader cultural acceptance, however, Mexican wrestling differs from its North American counterpart due to various other localised embellishments, such as a greater emphasis on speed and acrobatics over body-building physiques, but especially in the tradition of masked wrestlers. Now a staple piece of imagery disseminated internationally by Mexican-themed restaurants and fast-food chains along with the candy skull aesthetic of the Day of the Dead festival, the image of the masked luchador has become a truly iconic cultural artifact.
Much like the highly theatrical personas of American pro-wrestlers having “heel” (baddie) and “face” (good guy) characterisations with individual themed gimmicks, this is taken a step further in Mexico via the use of masks. The majority of luchadores (although by no means all) wear ornate decorated masks, which evoke the imagery of superheroes through a recombinant cultural lens, adding an element of “secret identity” to the individual persona each wrestler seeks to create. This further heightens the good-versus-evil stakes of the wrestling matches, to an even more colourful and superhuman level of symbolism. For those interested in knowing more about the history and culture of lucha libre, the documentary “Tales of Masked Men” available on Netflix is an excellent primer.
Cantina Brawl, is not, strictly speaking, true lucha libre, so much as it is an Australian approximation, intended to present the artform to the uninitiated as well as local enthusiasts. The show is produced by a group called Lucha Fantastica, the brainchild of Victor Diaz, a Mexican-Australian who discovered, when selling luchador masks in Melbourne’s markets, that this wildly popular form of home-grown entertainment was largely unknown Downunder.
Lucha Fantastica’s latest event is billed as a “tequila party” as much as it is an exhibition of Mexican professional wrestling, taking place in a licensed bar venue with a DJ and a rowdy, over-18s party atmosphere. The crowd pressed against the apron of the ring, slapping the edge of the mat in their enthusiasm like groundlings at the Globe Theatre, but with a lot more booze and hollering. The immediate proximity of this entirely standing audience to the ring would likely not be permitted at authentic Mexican lucha libre matches. By a similar token, the relatively low ceiling of the venue (at least, for to a wrestler perched on the top turnbuckle) perhaps put something of a dampener on the more spectacular of the high-flying moves that could be expected from seasoned performers.
But what these (apparently) home-grown luchadors may possibly lack in technical expertise is more than made up for in boundless enthusiasm and captivating theatricality, with 15 male and 3 female wrestlers featured in a variety of bouts. These colourful characters included the saint-styled San Benito, whose Jesus-like valet helps him cheat while battling the demonic El Diablo, who are counter-intuitively the rudo (villain) to be booed and the técnico (hero) to be cheered, respectively.
Singles matches, tag-team bouts, three-way competitions and even an all-in royal rumble showcase a continuing assortment of outrageous and often hilarious luchadores, each with their own gimmick-infused identity, such as the crotch-rubbing and red-flag waving Rafael 'Matador' Sanchez, the heroic Aztec-themed técnico Caballero Jaguar, or the even more bestial Mexican Werewolf, wearing a literal monster mask and furry loincloth. The wax-mustachioed Concrete, styled after ye-olde circus strongmen and Queensberry-rules pugilists, stands as one of the only unmasked participants. In marked contrast, the Blue Oni is resplendent in his mask, evoking the titular demon from Japanese mythology. Towering above the rest in stature is the homoerotically-tinged rudo Gringo Star, whose mask and ring attire evokes a mash-up of The Rocky Horror Show’s Frank N. Furter and the Batman villain Bane, himself a character inspired by the imagery of luchadores.
With all manner of outrageous antics and impressive athleticism, this is absolutely electric entertainment for those willing to get into the chaotic and ludicrous spirit of the thing. Between matches the MC would enter with a buxom ring girl bearing cards announcing the rounds and Chico, a luchador carrying a bottle of tequila, which he would pour into the gaping mouths of any in the audience close enough to the edge of the ring who chanted his name loud enough.
The enthusiasm of the raucous and interactive crowd hyped up the event to a fever pitch, often with a distinctly Aussie flair such as chorusing “REFFO’S A WANKER!” Pressed against the wrestling ring, with many wearing their own luchador masks, they would pound the mat, pull on the ropes and follow every move with gasps, cheers, and boos, seeming interchangeably semi-ironic and earnest alike. It was a delightfully anarchic atmosphere, with those of us closest to the ring having to physically recoil to avoid wrestlers slamming into the ropes inches from our faces, or being literally crawled over as trounced participants flee into the crowd.
Not for the young, infirm, nor terminally highbrow, Cantina Brawl was an infectiously fun night of partying, around a showcase of outsized characters, bone-thudding bodyslams, impressive acrobatic twirls, faintly lewd histrionics and all manner of nonsense that was truly a wonder to behold.
Lucha Fantastica presents
Venue: The Factory | 105 Victoria Road, Marrickville NSW
Dates: 2 February 2018