2015 will be the year remembered as when the LGBT movement achieved their greatest victory. This was the year when the Supreme Court ruled traditional marriage laws as unconstitutional, thus legalizing same sex marriage in all 50 states.
Some people don’t realize that it was only 17 years ago that people weren’t fighting for equal civil rights for LGBT individuals, but for their actual physical safety. Read that last sentence again.
That is where the Laramie Project comes in. The Laramie Project is a play written by Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theatre Project as a result of thousands of interviews with residents of the town of Laramie Wyoming after the brutal death of 21 year old college student Matthew Shepard. Shepard was beaten to death by two men and left to die tied to a fence in the middle of nowhere for 18 hours. It is widely believed Shepard was targeted for the vicious assault due to being gay.
The Laramie project is a “documentary theatre” style play, which means the entire dialogue is verbatim from the actual words said by the people interviewed in Laramie, as well as the interviewers. Speeches from the courtroom during the trial and sentencing hearings were also included.
The stage is mostly barren except for a dozen or so TVs stacked in two piles on opposite sides of the stage. The TVs would eventually become part of a powerful statement the Laramie Project wanted to make on the whole incident (more on that later). Otherwise, the stage consisted of a dozen actors and chairs, moving seamlessly from scene to scene, with only different articles of clothing and a video screen at the very top of the stage signifying scene and character changes.
Know going in that this is a very fast paced production. The actors each play at least half a dozen different characters and they only explain who each character is once in their relation to the case. It was difficult in the first 20 minutes to realize what was going on and to keep up with all of the character switches; they change scenes VERY fast in Act 1, and only slight changes in the clothing they wear distinguishes the characters from each other. Once you have the cadence and speed down, it became a lot easier to follow.
The production was also surprisingly clinical for most of the first act. It was as if you were watching a Dateline special being acted out live on stage. It was jarring at first the casual way they deliver the narration of the scenes. Was it because Laramie was such a laid back, casual town? Here we are in a place where two of its residents acted like the Devil himself, and the residents were like “Gays don’t bother me none, just don’t do anything in front of me”. That seemed to be one of the points the production was making.
The first act darts between different locales of Laramie, interviewing subjects about the town, about Matthew, and about gay life in Laramie. But then it kicks it up a notch when they showcase Aaron Kreifels, played by Zach Dictakis, who found Shepard tied to the fence, beaten within an inch of his life. Dictakis was one of a couple standout performers of this show, playing the moment with such innocence; you could feel his wonder and heartbreak at finding at actual person in the middle of nowhere, covered in blood. With the picture of the actual fence where Shepard was tied up in the background during the monologue, it was the first scene where you could hear a pin drop in the theatre.
Act 2 has a different feel to it. The production to this point has been mostly neutral, in that, it has treated this incident like most other crimes, with little editorializing, minimal dramatic flair, and mostly treating Shepard as a crime victim, not a gay crime victim. However, Act 2 made it clear it had A LOT to say about media sensationalism. This is where the TVs on stage come into play. Each of the TV sets were lit up with different news feeds from either the video cameras on stage or actual news feeds from Laramie the day after the murder. Everybody in the cast plays a reporter or cameraman, and they mince no words in portraying their overbearing nature and sensationalism. Their portrayal of the media was outlandish, and very effective. Does the media actually inflame the situation further? Does it prolong the town’s healing process? Do they ironically cause residents who would normally talk to shut down given their confrontational style? The production makes a couple hints that, the Laramie Project was much more effective at getting answers from the Laramie residents with their laid back, friendly demeanor than the media was. Does the media want information, or do they want to make a show? That’s one of the questions posed by this show.
Most of Act 2 and 3 turn away from the tricks they used in act 1 to seamlessly transition between scenes and instead focus on the monologues. The emphasis is on Shepard battling for his life in the hospital, how the town reacted to his death (hint: there are some who at least partially blame the victim), and what transpired in the courtroom for the trials of the two perpetrators. The last two acts let the actors shine, and as a result, the production really shines altogether.
If you are into star power, this production features Brandy Burre, who played Theresa D’Agostino in HBO’s The Wire. She was excellent specifically in portraying Marge Murray, an elder statesman of Laramie and mother of the cop who was first on the scene at the fence where Shepard was tied up.
However, the star of the night was unquestionably Josh Aaron McCabe, a 10 year veteran of the “Shakespeare & Company” group. He played a number of quirky characters, from a local limo driver to a Unitarian minister, to Matthew Shepard’s father at the sentencing hearing. All of these characters sounded and felt authentic, as if he did soul searching for each one to find out what their heart and motivation was during this whole incident. The speech he makes as his father in Act 3 on whether to call for the death penalty was so powerful, you could hear a tear drop. And I heard a couple. He captured the emotions of the scene instantly, and never let go throughout the monologue. I thought for a few moments I was actually watching Matthew Shepard’s father live on stage
The production finishes up on a bittersweet note. There’s no forgetting what happened on that day; the actions of two people impacted hundreds of people’s lives forever in many different ways. And yet, the Laramie Project also wants to let you know that these good folk of Laramie are still good folk, and that hope and love will survive.
I carefully watched people as the show ended, curious as to what sort of emotions they were left with. It seemed split pretty evenly between genuine admiration for the show, genuine sadness at experiencing the death of Matthew Shepard, and then genuine conversation about what it all means. I think this production intended to elicit all three emotions; admiration for the degree of difficulty all of these actors faced in presenting all of these characters as objectively as possible, sadness over the brutality of life taken as a result of one’s sexuality, and conversation about where we are today as a result of where we have come from. It’s no easy feat to evoke all three emotions, but the Laramie Project did that.
This is a production first and foremost interested in telling the story of Matthew Shepard’s death through the tales of others, with minimal editorial discretion. Its second purpose is to remind us that there was a time when gay people feared for their lives if they were public with their sexuality. Its third purpose is to explore how a town heals in the aftermath of such an incident, and whether the media makes things better or worse. If any of these things interest you, then see this show. You won’t be disappointed.
Final Rating: 3.5 Stars out of 4.