Thursday, October 8, 2020

review - THE LARAMIE PROJECT - Mesa Encore Theatre / Virtual Theater Lab


by Gil Benbrook

Last summer, on a road trip from South Dakota to Colorado, the route my husband and I took happened to take us through the small town of Laramie, Wyoming. With a main street populated with gas stations and fast food chain restaurants, Laramie isn't very different from other small towns that appear out of nowhere on a trip across miles of seemingly empty farmland only to just as quickly disappear in your rearview mirror as you continue on your journey. However, Laramie became famous after it was the setting of the 1998 hate crime death of Matthew Shepard, the gay 21 year old who was beaten and left to die tied to a fence post on a barren farmland on the outskirts of Laramie. It was eerie and surreal being in the same town where the events of the murder took place. Adding to that strange feeling was the fact that it was also the same day of the Gay Pride march in New York City where I knew that Shepard's parents were serving as the parade's grand marshals. 

As we stopped to refuel at a gas station in town, I wondered if the store had ever been frequented by Shepard, his parents, or members of the Tectonic Theater Company, the NY based company who came to Laramie the year after the murder to interview many of its residents, including several who knew Shepard, and who took those interviews to create the docu-drama play The Laramie Project. That play, which premiered in 2002, is being presented by Mesa Encore Theatre and Virtual Theater Lab through next Monday in a fairly impressive filmed virtual production, with a cast of dozens of local actors who portray the over 50 characters in the piece.

Nathan Gayan as Aaron Kreifels

Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre members took the transcripts of their more than 200 interviews, which were conducted over six separate trips to Laramie over the course of a year and a half, to weave together the story of this violent hate crime. This well-crafted piece is both an expose into the residents of the town that interweaves their own words to form a deeper understanding into their beliefs, their feelings and their views on what happened to Shepard, while also serving as a chillingly detailed account of the facts in Shepard's murder. 

As many who followed the case know, Matthew Shepard was a gay student at the University of Wyoming who met up with two locals, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, at a bar in Laramie one night. While the account of what exactly happened next is still unclear, what is known is that those two young men kidnapped Matthew, beat him and left him tied to a fence outside Laramie. It wasn't until the next day that his bloody body was discovered by Aaron Kreifels, a university student out for a bike ride who stumbled upon the lifeless, but still alive, Matthew. Over the next several days Shepard's story quickly gained national attention due to the horror of the events and the nature of his attack being viewed as a hate crime. 

Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project members spoke to dozens of members of Laramie, including the student who found Matthew, Laramie law enforcement officers and investigators, members of the University faculty who knew Shepard, and even McKinney and Russell Henderson. The play follows a somewhat linear timeline, starting with what is known about the events of the night Shepard was kidnapped and beaten to the investigation, Shepard's funeral, the trials and the aftermath. It also wisely shows both sides of the community members beliefs, from those who think homosexuality is a sin to others who have the motto "live and let live." In doing so, it depicts how everyone in Laramie struggled to make sense of what transpired in their small town and the subsequent call to action many took on behalf of what happened.

Wade Moran as Rob Debree

Using archival photos, news video, and a somber musical underscore, along with varied backgrounds and settings to give the feel of an actual documentary film, Mesa Encore Theatre and Virtual Theater Lab's production is quite effective. The use of captions to identify each character speaking also helps ground the piece in realism and also eliminates some of the narrative introduction usually present in the three act play. The two theatre companies and co-directors Chris Chávez and Van Rockwell are to be commended for taking on such a daunting project. 

The docu-drama style of the piece has its strengths and weaknesses on stage and this virtual version also has its pro and cons. Since many of us are familiar with similar types of dramas with filmed investigative documentaries that feature similar interviews being fairly present on TV, the stage version can come across as a bit theatrical in nature - especially in how it is usually staged with only a small group of actors playing all of the parts. Also, when I saw the original Off Broadway production, Kaufman and members of Tectonic were not only playing themselves on stage but also many of the people they each had interviewed which provided an intense connection between the actors on stage and the real life people they played in knowing that they were speaking the same words of the people they each actually spoke to. While that added element is clearly missing from any subsequent production that doesn't feature the Tectonic cast, it is the words of the people who were interviewed that is important and hearing those words, whether they are spoken by the actual individual, the person who interviewed them, or members of this production, are still relevant today when hate crimes are still prevalent and hatred and bigotry still exists

However, while the play is well-crafted it's also long, running three acts and 2 and a half hours, with some time spent on supporting characters that don't always add to the emotional and reflective nature of the play. There is also the lack of nuance in some of the performances for this virtual production which I'm assuming is due to most of the actors involved usually performing on stage and not film. While many of the video segments use varied backgrounds, there is also an unfortunate repetitiveness in several scenes that use MET's Black Box space for the backdrop for almost 1/2 of the scenes in the film. There is also some unevenness in the audio with loud background noise  that gets in the way a few times. 

David Chorley as Rulon Stacey

Fortunately there is much to praise, including the fact that having dozens of actors in this production where each almost only plays one part adds an element of realism to the piece that works well for a filmed version of the play. Also, in depicting individuals who range from callous to caring and from those who resent the fact their town is now famous because of the murder to others who are changed for the better from what has happened, many of the actors in the cast deliver realistic portrayals that also work well to give the film a sense of naturalism. These include Nathan Gayan as Aaron Kreifels, the university student who feels that God guided him to find Matthew so that Matthew would not die alone; Wade Moran as Matt Depree, the chief investigator in Shepard's case; David Chorley as Rulon Stacey, the doctor who oversaw Matthew's treatment in the hospital after he was found tied to the fence; and Dan Marburger as Doc O'Connor, the limousine driver who often drove Matthew to gay bars in Colorado.  All four men instill their characters with a profound sense of humanity. 

As the two accused murderers, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, Brady Anderson and Daniel Makoutz appropriately don't show a hint of remorse for what they did. Matthew Ryan Harris delivers the moving, emotional and heartfelt speech Matthew's father gives during McKinney's arraignment where he talks about how much he misses his son (it's too bad there aren't any reaction shots from Mackoutz as McKinney, which in a stage version would help show the impact of these words.)

Brenna Jackson is very good as Romaine Patterson, a friend of Matthew's who uses the experience as a call to activism and a way to find a better vehicle to deal with the kind of hatred Shepard's murder unfortunately exposed. Madeleine Miller and Debra Lyman are quite effective as Reggie Fluty, the policewoman who first responded to the scene where Shepard was found, and Reggie's mother, respectively. In supporting parts, Tony Blosser, George Canady, Madison Desoto, Tina Khalil, Henry Male, Jeffrey Middleton and George Peterson-Karlan are all very good.

Full of several moving monologues, and still raw and realistic even though the events happened over twenty years ago, The Laramie Project may be long, but the length of the play can also be seen as a strength in that it does allow you to get to know a lot of the people from the town with conflicting views as well as many people that Matthew Shepard actually knew. While The Laramie Project may have first premiered almost 20 years ago, the story of Matthew's murder is still relevant today. It may evoke reactions ranging from anger to sadness but it is still a thought provoking play that quietly projects the important message of tolerance. Chris Chávez, Van Rockwell, and David Chorley, whose audio and video editing for this production is very good, are all to be praised as The Laramie Project is a daunting beast of a play, so the fact that MET and Virtual Theater Lab were able to create such a polished production, during a pandemic, is amazing.

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