For the past two years, POW has performed with almost monthly regularity at Satyricon. The matches pit stars like Hammerhead, a part-person, part-common household tool, against opponents like a bloody and mangled Roadkill Kitty. In stylized choreography, the wrestlers dance, grapple, and pound their chests in skits that would make even Hulk Hogan blush and giggle. Like wrestlers from the WWE (formerly the WWF), each of the characters have elaborate storylines, grudges, and shady pasts. "I don't understand all of them," laughs Vinnie Cleanhands, POW's promoter.
POW troubles started almost a year ago. At that time, the Boxing and Wrestling Commission, a division of the Oregon State Police, sent a terse cease-and-desist letter to Satyricon. The commission decided the acts were essentially unlicensed wrestling--a violation of state law. As a compromise and a means to stay clear of the commission's concerns, Vinnie added the word "theater" to promotional materials. Therefore, POW clearly announced that it was not wrestling, but a stage performance and, as such, not under the watchful eye of the commission.
But after 10 months with no interference, POW received another notice in mid-May. The letter reiterated concerns that POW violates the state's wrestling laws, and orders POW to cease their matches. Since then, POW and the commission have struggled for the upper hand.
The thrust of the commission's argument is that, like WWE, POW uses "storylines." According to that argument, this makes POW performances similar to those of the WWE and therefore under the sway of the commission. Vinnie finds this explanation absurd--it is the very storylines that make the performances "theater."
With the help of a pro bono attorney, POW threatened to sue the state. They also defiantly declared that the show will go on. This Thursday (June 6), POW will perform their first show since receiving the commission's order, even though the commission has threatened to shut down the performance and fine the mock wrestlers.
"The idea of fines makes me uncomfortable," says Vinnie, who clearly wants to host a fun evening without being molested by state authorities. But he also explains that the wrestlers are stubborn about, if not somewhat energized by the conflict. "I think they want to get arrested for art," he says, mildly bemused. "I want the show to go on; it just doesn't feel like we're doing anything wrong."
The conflict brings into play the role a state agency can play in deciding the tone, tenor, and substance of entertainment in Oregon. "The state cannot tell us what to do," declares Vinnie. "I can understand if it's dangerous, but there are fight scenes in Shakespeare."
POW has not yet filed a lawsuit or injunction against the state, but with the help of a local attorney, Alex Hamalian, they have prepared their legal argument that the state is interfering with legitimate entertainment and free speech. Moreover, after being informed that the commission would attend Thursday's performance, Hamalian used the roundabout logic that, if the commission plans to attend, they must recognize that the show will occur and, therefore, by their own de facto admission, have declared that the cease-and-desist order has been canceled. Hamalian explained all of this to the commission in a letter delivered late last week.
"I sent them four complimentary tickets," says Hamalian, "and I also told him who would win."