Eleven years ago, 21-year-old University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten, tied to a fence and left for dead in a gay hate crime that shook America to the core. But The Laramie Project, Moisés Kaufman’s award-winning play about the murder and its aftermath, focuses solely on the small town where it happened: Laramie, Wyoming.
Devised by Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Project, it’s a kinetic piece based on interviews with more than 70 Laramie residents and has become one of the most performed plays in the modern American repertoire. UK productions are few and far between but no matter, if they are all as powerful as Wild Oats’ revival at The Space. In this tiny church-cum-arts centre on the Isle of Dogs, director Joseph Walsh has delivered a production that in my view trumps even the HBO film version, which featured the likes of Steve Buscemi and Laura Linney.
Walsh’s eight-strong cast is inexperienced by comparison. But over the course of two hours, each effortlessly takes on a multitude of characters, shifting between old and young, gay and straight, murderer and witness, to build up a picture of a town struggling to stay real while all around are trying to make it a symbol for their own agenda.
The direction is sensitive and uncluttered, allowing Laramie voices to be heard in a way that the media who descended on the town after the murder did not. What sparse choreography there is serves a simple message, as when the cast pile up their chairs to represent the lonely fence where Shepard lay dying.
When they help us light candles representing his final view of Laramie’s twinkling lights, it could be mawkish. But as well as marking Matthew's memory, they are a pledge not to forget. US president Barack Obama finally passed the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act last month, a full decade after his death. But in the same week here in London, a middle-aged gay man was kicked to death in Trafalgar Square.
The Laramie Project cannot prevent such attacks but it can move, educate and activate those intent on preventing them in the future. This production needs and deserves a central London transfer. I sincerely hope it gets one.
With such a shocking incident at its heart you’d think this would make for an unremittingly bleak evening of theatre. Reportage of the event itself is indeed harrowing but it’s tempered with so many moments of reflection, bravery and hope from the people affected by the incident that the cumulative effect is inspiring and uplifting. Yes, such evil is in our midst but so is the good will to keep fighting the demons. The piece is so effective in delivering its message that ever since its first performance in New York ten years ago it’s been used to lobby for anti-hate crime legislation and to educate kids away from homophobia. It’s also a beautifully constructed piece of drama...
To celebrate its tenth birthday the play is getting a slew of new productions around the world including a very fine one in London, simply and effectively staged in the church hall like atmosphere of The Space, E14 by young director Joe Walsh. The audience sit on three sides of this austere hall and the wonderful cast conjure up the many many characters so simply and effectively that you become completely immersed in the business of the besieged town with the public meetings particularly effective in this location. Walsh uses a few subtle and neat tricks of sound and lighting to keep you hooked but never overdoes things allowing the words to speak for themselves. All the actors are so pitch perfect that it would be wrong to single out any individuals in this inspiring piece of teamwork.
The Laramie Project is a kinetic theatre piece based on verbatim interviews with the local population in the days and weeks following Matthew’s murder, covering news reporting, police investigation, trials and a portrait of a close-knit community wrestling with its collective and individual consciences. Eleven years after the event it has an immediacy and a freshness which had every member of the audience wholly engaged, whilst staying the right side of sensationalism or mawkishness. The structure of Joseph C. Walsh’s production is elegant and fluid, and the ebb and flow of 75 distinct characters is handled with incredible skill by a tight team of just 8 young actors.
It’s hard to single out individual performances but among a very focused and committed ensemble, Adam Unze’s doubling of the callow barman who served Matt his last drink, and both of the perpetrators is indicative of a highly developed talent, Francis Adams‘ speech to the jury as Matt’s father held the audience in total stillness, and [Amelia Frank's] ability to switch from glamorous sophisticate to backwoods grandma by the mere donning of a beret was outstanding.
There is no higher recommendation: for all the important reasons you go to the theatre, it’s a ‘must-see’.
The predominantly young cast numbered eight, all switching between being members of the acting company who created the play, the townspeople of Laramie, Matthew’s friends and colleagues at the university, and the perpetrators of the crime.
The members of the company were incredibly talented; they conveyed the emotions of the play with aplomb. All of the performances were incredibly convincing, in their deep-south accents and in how they managed to switch from character to character seamlessly.
The story itself is incredibly poignant, and the writers and cast really conveyed the sense of futility and pointlessness associated with Matthew’s death. However it was a fair and, to quote the town’s Catholic priest, “correct” portrait of the town, pointing out the positives as well as the negatives. That it wasn’t condemned as being full of rednecks; and that Matthew wasn’t portrayed as a complete saint is to its credit.
This is not a cheerful play, but the audience was left with a sense of hope rather than despair at the end, something you imagine Matthew would’ve been rather pleased with.
Moisés Kaufman's documentary play is apparently one of the most performed pieces of theatre in America currently. Wild Oats Productions have given it a rare outing to these shores, ostensibly to mark the 11th anniversary of the death-by-beating of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming - the even which is the play's focus. But it soon becomes clear that this is no mere ceremonial production, and no sort of period piece.
The original play was born out of Kaufman's desire to write something “about what's happening in Wyoming”. He and fellow members of the Tectonic Theatre Project made six trips to Laramie, to observe the immediate aftermath of the crime and the eventual trials of its perpetrators, and to conduct over 200 interviews with the people of the town. The play is stitched together out of dozens of verbatim extracts of these testimonies. What emerges is a wide, compassionate portrait of a community in crisis. The warmth, passion and generosity of spirit of many of the interviewees is given to us open-handed. The bigotry, narrow-mindedness and toxic hatred of many others, is dropped in lightly, matter-of-factly, and it is left to us what conclusions we draw.
This is right and good - there'd be little point to a play that merely reiteratated the negative judgements we could have formed from the bare facts alone. Not that Kaufman in any way dilutes the horror of the crime. But he allows complex viewpoints to come forth.
The Wild Oats company excel at moving between different figures to show the great reserves of compassion among the townspeople. Jenna Berk is excellent both as the lecturer and as the police officer who was first at the crime scene and is haunted by the image of the bleeding Shepard - and who unknowingly risked contracting HIV when she tended to him. Adam Unze brings nice comic touches to the honest and fair-minded barman, a key eyewitness. And Kevin James heartbreakingly re-enacts the moment when the hospital spokesman, announcing Shepard's death on national television, broke down completely.
Joseph Walsh's staging has a lovely feel of communal effort to it. The company smile at each other between movements of the play; move across the stage repositioning chairs and themselves as each different testimony starts; and segue smoothly between inhabiting the different interviewees and playing the interviewers themselves, the members of the original theatre company who visited the town. They rotate roles constantly so that our ability to see clearly where the oppositions are, where the battle lines are drawn, is challenged. Everything is done with the lightest of touches, the better to persuade us that this happened not in a horror movie but in the real world; in a normal town where you might just still detect the elusive whiff of horror on the air.
The British Theatre Guide
The genius of The Laramie Project is that it doesn’t simply overcome the boredom that slits the throat of so much verbatim theatre. It rivets and it moves. Without preaching. It trades the sanctimony of political theatre for the sincerity of rendering people in their own words. Kaufman makes a case for the importance of the writer in verbatim. Never relying on the interviews to write the story, there’s an intense understanding of narrative at play in the text. Immediately the protagonist is clear: Laramie. The character of Laramie takes three-dimensional form as each beat of its fight to cope emerges from the interviews. And not a word is wasted. The town’s struggle is compelling.
Walsh’s show moves with an elegant precision. The director’s hand is evident throughout. Weaving the show into the audience, Walsh achieves the intimacy of a confessional. At the same time he makes guilt-ridden Laramie spring to life and bustle around us. Walsh and cast catch us in a wrenching emotional clockwork. Each actor hangs upon the other actor’s lines. Acknowledging the audience and asking us to act at times, the cast makes it clear that we the audience are part of the gears that drive the show.
A true ensemble effort, the show’s most striking feature by far is the detail in the cast’s performances. Each actor embodies several citizens of Laramie and renders each in meticulous detail. Researching everything from accents to mannerisms, the cast doesn’t miss a joke buried in the obscurity of regional expression. I’m from a small town close to Laramie and similar in character. Seeing the cast and hearing the rhythms of speech, I had to remind myself I was in London and not at a church bake sale back home.
Nothing feels imposed on the characters and nothing is contrived. There were no ill-conceived, poorly researched caricatures of the Americanwest thrust onto the text. Both cast and director pay the writers and the people of Laramie the respect they deserve. They have listened to the characters, learning their individual speech patterns and allowed them to emerge from the page. This level of respect for the craft is the show’s trademark.
It’s rare to find a cast that listens so intensely to each other. So it’s also rare to see a cast who reacts to each other in such a genuine way. This intensity gives an overwhelming importance to what is happening on stage. The effect is that, without preaching, the cast shows the audience their responsibility: to listen. See this show. Don’t be turned off because it’s an ‘issue’ play. Don’t avoid the show because you don’t want to be lectured. Don’t write it off as a depressing topic. It’s none of these things. It’s a play that lays humanity bare and infuses it with fervent hope.
The 8 actors involved gave phenomenal performances... The Laramie Project is quite possibly the most moving and powerful play I have ever seen. There wasn’t a single dry eye in the theatre after the statement that Dennis Shepard (Matthew’s father) read to the court was read out as part of the play...definitely a must see...
Gaelick (Irish E-Zine)
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