For five years now, brave and intrepid playwrights have risked it all in the Crowbait Club's monthly theater Deathmatches: If a contestant’s play is drawn from the hat and performed on the spot by the actors, playwrights pray that it will win the audience's raucous love, beat out the competition, and secure a place in the CBC's annual best-of fest, the King of Crows. At King of Crows V, onstage this weekend at the St. Lawrence, expect 10-minute explorations of war, nature, holiday anxiety, and the dangers of the perfect sandwich.
No Escape... (L to R): Owen Keller, EB Coughlin, Molly Eliza Donlan, Darby DeFilippis
Each of last year’s Deathmatches was given a theme for submissions, and so the line-up of winning plays has a wide range. In Doni Tamblyn’s Give Till It Hurts (theme: Sacrifice), Uncle Sam and Corporate Greed Head argue over who gives up the most in America. Brent Askari’s The Other Flight (theme: Fear) watches a couple on a plane come to suspect a black man of terrorism. And Mother Nature is, after all, a hippie bro, in Michael Cheung’s Mother Nature (theme: Family). There is even, for the first time in King of Crows, a musical: Kat Loef’s No Escape From the Little Green and Purple People (Theme: Escape), with songs by Victoria Stubbs and the Murder Band.
Tooher says playwrights have of late been tackling some serious content and themes, with complexity that's impressive considering the short-form format. Take, he says, Katy Rydell's Truck Driver (theme: Trash), inspired by a New York Times article about an Afghani man who collects bodies for both the Taliban and the Afghani government despite having lost his sons in the conflict. "It moves from unspeakable pain," says Tooher, "into a gentle hope for the future."
How has the festival evolved over the last five years? "Well, the writing is a lot more sophisticated, to start. And the audience is too," says CBC president Michael Tooher. "When we started at Mama's Crowbar in 2012, the material tended to the big laugh comedy. However as we matured so did the material." That doesn't mean, though, that the laughs went away. "We still have plenty of comedy, but there is now all manner of styles, from farcical to situational to plain up crude." Probably falling somewhere in that range is Jay W. Jones’s Save the Beer! (Theme: Drunks and Candles).
The CBC crew is excited about a lot of developments in their demographics, too. The playwrights in this year's King of Crows are split evenly along gender lines, Tooher notes, and their actors range in age from 11 to 75. Several writers this year have been getting their plays out there locally and beyond for some time, including Askari; Lynne Cullen, author of Aunt Viola (theme: Insanity); and Tooher, who wrote the memory play 180 (theme: Power).
"Half of the playwrights have won for the first time," he says, "and two had never written a play before. " One of those is Sally Hinckley, whose Poles Apart (theme: Magic) concerns a stressed-out Mrs. Claus seeking drugs and a therapist.
The CBC members see themselves as a unique and inclusive force in the theater community. "Crowbait Club is sui generis in the theatre both in form and function. What we have is a fun theatre game that doesn't have gatekeepers who pass judgments, just people who want to try it out."
John Bowker, author of Everything Goes Awry (about that perfect sandwich’s effects on a marriage; theme: No), is a relative newcomer to the CBC who appreciates the inclusivity of Portland’s theater scene, and especially of the Deathmatches. “There's still room to play and experiment here,” says Bowker, “and groups like the Crowbait Club give the average person a chance to be a part of it.” Anyone, indeed, can show up, put their name in the hat, and see what happens.
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