"Let it be said that the Blitz Smackdown was so awesome that I honestly think that every Blitz should be like this," opined playwright and actor Rob Matsushita, one of four writers competing in the 24-hour theatre competition nearly a month ago on Saturday, Jan. 6. Organized by the Mercury Players Theatre and modeled after its seven-years-and-counting summertime series known merely as Blitz, the Smackdown pitted four playwrights against one another in a bid to earn audience love.
Each writer was paired with a veteran Blitz director and anywhere from a few to a dozen actors to stage a primary production, the script built around a few lines appropriate from another show produced by Mercury in 2005. The volume of the audience response to each performance was subsequently gauged, with the writers of the top two productions moving on to a final confrontation.
One of those playwrights was Matsushita, who penned the tale told in Unbound, a story that he describes as what happens "when spin-the-bottle goes really, really wrong." Directed by Rachel Bledsoe and featuring six actors -- Riddle Flow-on, Micheal Herman, Kelly Lee Kriesel, Emily Mills, Matthew A. Schrader, and Kathy Lynn Sliter -- the production highlighted the fun and fury of stage combat.
Matsushita describes his role in the blitz that weekend:
After drawing the title Unbound, and meeting up with my director, Rachel Jenkins, we picked our cast. Each of the teams had to pick one actor at a time from a table covered in headshots -- a much more competitive process than usual for a Blitz. It was a lot like high school gym class, actually. When one person would pick an actor, four other people would yell "dammit!"
Another difference from how the Blitz is normally done is that we had a cast before the writing process began. This was both good and bad. Bad, because you sort of don't have a full choice as to who you got, but good because you could totally write to the strengths of the cast. There are a couple of lines in the script that I wrote mainly because I'd heard the actor in question actually say them in real life.
The show ended up being about a game I totally made up called "Bangkok spin-the-bottle." This is like regular spin-the-bottle, but with pain.
The cast, when I dropped by the rehearsal, really seemed to like the script. Micheal Herman, who just directed the currently running "Bug," (whose set we used for the show) told me that people were asking him if he was okay doing this, considering he had an opening night coming up so soon. Would the stress from that hurt his ability to act? "Are you kidding? This is exactly what I need right now!"
Besides writing the script, Matsushita also made sure that Unbound was captured for posterity's sake on video (shot by local filmmakers Sam Lawson and Nick Drake), giving him another chance to present the production beyond the small audience that initially attended the swiftly sold-out performance.
Matsushita subsequently published this video of Unbound online, presenting the show in two segments. The first part features the early rounds of this violent version of spin-the-bottle.
The game really gets going, though, in the second part of the play.
Matsushita evaluates his script:
As far as how I thought my show did, I was honestly shocked at the great audience reaction. When I finished the script, I honestly wondered if the was the sort of thing that only I found funny. It's dark humor with brutality all the way through, and ended with self-mutilation with a power tool -- even the producers had their doubts.
But Rachel's direction really worked, and the stage combat (which I learned later was mostly worked out by Kelly Lee Kriesel) was so good, so real, that the audience just exploded when they saw where it was going. As one of the actors said to me after, "It's like slapstick, but cool and dark." I sort of think of it as Buster Keaton does "Fight Club."
After receiving the loudest audience applause for their productions, the two playwright finalists -- Matsushita and Doug Reed -- subsequently went head-to-head with one last page of script. Reed came out ahead in the end, claiming the crown of Mercury's first winter blitz.
More details about the smackdown can be found in a report by Christian Neuhaus, as well as in a detailed four-part and first-person review of the fun written by participating actor Al Hart. This includes an introduction to the Blitz process, a report on Reed's American Dream, comments on the final smackdown between Reed and Matsushita, and finally reflections on the entire blitz of activity.