Review: THE LARAMIE PROJECT at Holden Street Theatres

A powerful production from Red Phoenix.

By: Oct. 22, 2021

Review: THE LARAMIE PROJECT at Holden Street Theatres Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Thursday 21st October 2021.

The multi-award-winning Red Phoenix, resident company at Holden Street Theatres, is back in action with The Laramie Project, a powerful and moving play, a piece of verbatim theatre, created by Moisés Kaufman and Tectonic Theatre Project. As usual for this company, several nights were already sold out well before opening night.

This work revisits the October 7th 1998 case when University of Wyoming student, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man, was found tied to a fence not far outside Laramie. He had been savagely beaten and left there to die alone, in pain. He was discovered by chance, eighteen hours later, and rushed to hospital but, five days later, he succumbed to his injuries. Two young men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, were arrested, tried, and sentenced to life imprisonment, the most violent of the two attempting to use the ridiculous 'gay panic defence', something that, thankfully, is a thing of the past, recognised now as nothing more than bigotry leading to violence. They are still in gaol.

The entire spectrum of reactions to the event was displayed. The disgusting homophobe, the late Rev. Fred Phelps of the notoriously unchristian, Westboro Baptist Church, made an appearance to picket at the funeral, and outside the court, spouting his vile bigotry. Romaine Patterson, a friend of Matthew's, formed a group, Angel Action to, very cleverly, counter his protests.

Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theatre Project first went to Laramie two months after the event, and returned several times over the next year, conducting over 200 recorded interviews. These form the basis for the text of this play, which runs for three hours, with two short intervals.

Director, Brant Eustice, has drawn together a cast that includes some of Adelaide's finest and most experienced performers. Tracey Walker was the Assistant Director. The members of this cast are Samuel Creighton, Cheryl Douglas, Chris Gun, Matt Houston, Nick Kennett, Jasmine Leech, Sharon Malujlo, Nadia Talotta, Tom Tassone, and Anita Zamberlan Canala, some of whom have worked with the company before, and a few new faces. Between them, they play more than 70 characters.

There they were, all 74, distinct, clearly-defined characters from all walks of like, including Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theatre Project themselves, Laramie residents, some who were friends of Shepard, or the accused, and others, including police, doctors, and religious leaders and, of course, reporters in the media frenzy, all of whom are given creditable accents by the cast, as well as superb characterisations, with only a few simple bits of costuming to help delineate the various people.

This is very much an ensemble piece and to single out any of the cast for special mention would be unfair. That situation, fortunately, doesn't arise, as there are no performances better than the rest, nor are there any weak links, in this group of well-balanced, very high-level artists. Brant Eustice has chosen his cast extremely well.

Such was the power created through the intensity of the emotional connections in the performances of the entire cast, that there were plenty of teary eyes on very quiet people to be seen at each of the two intervals and after the final bows, and some serious discussions in the foyer, as well as outside, where some went to discretely dab at their eyes with handkerchiefs. To say that this was a moving production would be the understatement of the year. It is certainly essential viewing for lovers of great theatre, and a master class for other actors.

Kate Prescott's set is dominated by a section of heavy timber fence, with a selection of dramas blocks in the foreground, and a few chairs, all lit, with his usual keen eye, by Richard Parkhill. Sean Smith provided the effective and subtle sound design.

On opening night, it was mentioned that there were only a handful of tickets left for the rest of this week, and the second week is selling well, with half of the tickets already sold. This remarkable production is sure to sell out, as previous productions by this company have done, so booking today would be very good advice, as leaving it until after the weekend might be too late. You'll be sorry if you miss this one.

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