The Laramie Project
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
September 10, 2005
The Laramie Project is arguably one of the most influential plays of the last decade. Not only because of its hot button issue of hate crimes, but also because of its unique and highly theatrical structure. It has replaced plays like Our Town as one of the most produced plays in high schools. This statistic tells us a lot about what's going in our schools (not to mention the national atmosphere) and of the number of drama teachers who want to address the issue of why we hate and the effects of hate. I highly recommend the Gallery Players' production of this important and moving play (with a certain sense of urgency).
The Laramie Project is an interview-based play about the brutal beating and subsequent death of Matthew Shepard. In 1998 Shepard, a young gay college student, was beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die in rural Wyoming. The event shocked the nation and stirred up a media frenzy that in turn produced much public debate on the issues of homosexuality and hate crimes. In response, the Tectonic Theatre Project, led by director/playwright Moises Kaufman, traveled to Laramie and over a year’s time collected more than 200 interviews from residents and whittled them down into a tight two-hour play. The script also contains excerpts from the journals of the interviewers.
The interviewers were all members of the Tectonic company who (in the original production) played the very people they interviewed. In subsequent productions, this ensemble-driven piece has each actor playing several different Laramie residents as well as a member of the company. Actors announce who they’re portraying just before launching into a character voice and posture. The play has no entrances or exits, no scenes as we know them, and no main character (unless you consider Shepard the main character—but we never meet him, we only hear accounts of him). The juxtaposition of opinions in this extraordinary play is ceaselessly engaging and powerful; it’s at times enraging while at other times overwhelmingly beautiful and emotional as it seeks to find the motivations behind hate and prejudice. And still it never forgets to be entertaining, offering bits of humor and plenty of theatrical aesthetics.
The Gallery Players production is replete in such aesthetics. The set is simple but not bare. The costumes (by David B. Thompson) are of one or two pieces that give just enough of a hint at who is speaking. Jennette Kollmann’s lights are subtle and draw the eye very effectively. Director Neal Freeman does an outstanding job staging a play that can be quite challenging; his direction of the controlled chaos of the media frenzy is particularly striking.
The ensemble is tight and precise. It is quite evident that each actor has put a lot of work into creating character distinctions using their voices and their bodies. Stephen Tyrone Williams and Flannery Foster, in particular, stick in my mind. But it is Daniel Damiano who steals the night with his amazingly colorful characters and larger-than-life presence on stage.
Dialogue about the Matthew Shepard incident and others like it should never die away. Hate crimes will not just vanish. It will take cooperation, understanding, and possibly some legislation. (Ironically, Wyoming is one of only seven states that have passed no hate crime legislation.) One of the characters says, “That kinda thing doesn’t happen here in Laramie.” Later another character points out that it did—so how can it be said that it doesn’t happen. Indeed, it can happen anywhere. Essentially, that’s what The Laramie Project brings to light. And that’s kinda scary.