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A CurtainUp Review
The Laramie Project
By Elyse Sommer
Eight people stand behind plain wooden straight-backed chairs. They are actors, and very good ones at that. The story they are about to enact for us does not come from a script written in a playwright's study. It is instead a group effort in which Moisés Kaufman's unique troupe participated as research journalists, interviewing the characters they would eventually portray. The result is a play of forceful but never showy dramatic impact, its seriousness leavened with laughter.
On the surface The Laramie Project is a docudrama about a particular and particularly horrendous 1998 hate crime, the brutal and fatal beating of a gay college senior named Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming -- population 26,687. The world-wide media coverage turned Shepard (like Oscar Wilde in Kaufman's previous journalistic drama, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,) into a martyr symbolizing random acts of violence.
But this is not a rehash of a widely publicized crime. Instead, that single event is reexamined within the framework of a portrait of Laramie, its citizens and their reactions to the tragedy and the effect of being in the eye of a media storm. Mr. Kaufman and his colleagues have thus used the power of theater to force us to face the unsettling questions about the potential for violence in even the most ordinary corners of the American landscape.
Unlike Gross Indecency the victim whose story drives The Laramie Project is never on stage. The emphasis is on the effect of that victim's violent death on the town which transforms his premature exit from life into every parent's and every town's nightmare.
The story unfolds with deceptive simplicity. The eight actors explain how they became participants as interviewers during the company's six visits to Laramie. They set the scene for Shepard's fatal ride with his two attackers by giving us a bird's eye view of the erstwhile ranch and railroad town: its mores, its open spaces, its neighborly everybody knows everybody atmosphere on one hand and division between the working class and university populace on the other. As the actors take on the personae of the characters, types become identifiable individuals with opinions and attitudes that shed some light on THE EVENT that, as one person puts it, "defined the town by an accident."
The naturalness with which the actors move back and forth between their roles as visiting journalists and the multiple characters in this human collage give The Laramie Project its dramatic muscle. The script yields few memorable lines and the company's determined sensitivity to the fact that these people are still living with this story makes for a somewhat homogenized overall image of a modern day Grovers' Corners -- with Walmart and some town and gown tensions. However, these shortcomings are more than offset by the superb portraiture and cinematic but spare staging.
All the actors play at least a half a dozen characters and often themselves, as well as being part of ensemble scenes. Stephen Belber delivers bull's eye portrayals of Matt Galloway, the bartender who last saw Shepard alive; the limo driver who asks only "how much?" of those headed for the distant gay bar life unavailable in Laramie; the co-perpetrator Russell Henderson's Mormon spiritual adviser and a Kansas zealot who disrupts Shepard's funeral yelling "God hates fags" Andy Paris is equally impressive as, among others, the doctor who keeps the hungry media informed about Shepard's condition and as theater student whose always supportive parents won't come to see his audition winning performance in Angels In America. Greg Pierotti and John McAdams round out the male gallery with a dozen other memorable characters.
The women in the cast are also outstanding. Amanda Gronich is terrific as the feisty "live and let live" Marge Murray. Mercedes Herrero is fine as her daughter Reggie, the police officer who was exposed to Shepard's HIV infection when she untied Matthew from the fence to which he had been bound and left for dead (Her account of that event is one of the play's more harrowing scenes). Barbara Pitts displays truly amazing versatility as a gay university professor, the grandmother of one of the killers and most incisively as a Muslim student who thinks the idea of a play "weird." It is this girl who voices the harsh truth that while this may be a town that doesn't raise children who commit murder that this is in fact the town where it happened.
Obviously, this is just a sampling of the bravura acting on display and the people who give definition to the company's portrait of this modern day Grovers Corners.
The design team is a powerful ally in emphasizing the mood and theatricality of Kaufman's direction. The black brick wall underscores the somberness of the events being reenacted. A simple sliding wall reveals a screen on which the doctor's reports during the vigil before Shepard's death are projected. At the height of the media feeding frenzy, a half a dozen TV sets tumble down the wall showing the actors as reporters bringing the Laramie tragedy to viewers all over the world. Peter Golub's original music synchronizes every shift in mood.
In his ability to parlay factual research into a work of high-voltage theatricality, Moisés Kaufman has repeated what he successfully did with Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. Having moved from a Victorian scandal linked to the uptight mores of a past era to a recent event that left a blemish on the American self-image of decency and open-mindedness, the playwright-director has also ventured into an exciting new direction by making his actors part of the playmaking process.
The grim subject matter and absence of hopeful answers to the questions raised may make The Laramie Project a tough sell to audiences looking for summer entertainment. Yet it's a play that will reward all interested in innovative and invigorating contemporary theater.