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BWW Reviews: Theatreworks' THE LARAMIE PROJECT Reminds Us of Who We Are

Times have certainly changed since 1998, when young Matthew Shepard, brutally beaten, tortured, and left to die on a fence in Laramie Wyoming, inspired the gifted Moises Kaufman to write THE LARAMIE PROJECT. Had he lived, Matthew would be middle-aged now and, depending on the state where he would be living, it wouldn't be surprising to learn that he found someone of the same gender to wed - legally. Perhaps, too, he would be reading about Bruce Jenner's recent transformation. Who knows where his potential would have taken him, or what gifts he would have shared on a personal or societal level? The fact is, there's no excuse for a life to be so brutally and tragically brought to an abrupt and violent end.

Kaufman and other members of the Tectonic Theater Project, outraged and determined to explore the genesis of such a crime and the response of the Laramie community itself, made six trips to Laramie and, in less than two years and more than two hundred interviews with its citizens, had amassed enough material to create a riveting, almost documentary-style drama that manages not only to look at those responsible for the murder, but also the trial itself, as well as the diverse reactions of townsfolk. The resulting play, THE LARAMIE PROJECT, directed by Den-Nicholas Smith, is now being co-produced by the New Moon Theatre Company and the Emerald Theatre Company. Moreover, as THE LARAMIE PROJECT ends its run at Theatreworks, its follow-up 10 YEARS LATER, directed by Gene Elliott, will commence at the nearby Evergreen Theatre.

If you've ever read Truman Capote's exhaustive and emotionally draining IN COLD BLOOD, about the senseless murders of a Kansas farm family by two drifters, you'll see a connection between Capote's masterwork and Kaufman's play. Capote set out to write a story about the victims, but as he immersed himself in the townspeople and the effect of the killings on them, the story began to shift its focus; and part of the power of IN COLD BLOOD is the heightened awareness of the citizens to unseen terrors that can slip through screen doors. Kaufman has essentially done the same thing here. This is not just a play about the victim, but about all of us, represented in microcosm by the citizens of Laramie.

Kaufman and his cohorts have created a work that is epic in scope. While THE LARAMIE PROJECT describes the character of Matthew (or "Matt," as he preferred to be called) through the voices of others - his close friends, his school adviser, a bartender - the collective "character" of Laramie itself is the most memorable. It comes across as a kind of variation on the ugliness-beneath-the-surface world you find in a David Lynch work like TWIN PEAKS or BLUE VELVET. We are welcomed into a world of blue skies and natural beauty; but once you get past Wal-Mart, you're in trouble. It's a live-and-let-live community: "Good fences make good neighbors," as Robert Frost wrote in "Mending Wall."

Instead of the Stage Manager describing Grover's Corners in Thornton Wilder's OUR TOWN, Moises Kaufman and his team go in different directions - before long, we learn that the University is the life force of the town; we see the different religious denominations in Laramie (only the Catholic priest will attend Matthew's vigil); we see the police who are in charge of the investigation and visit the administrators and doctors of the hospital where Matthew will spend his last days. The death of Matthew will disturb the complacent mediocrity of Laramie, as hordes of newscasters (brandishing microphones and video cameras like threatening weapons) descend upon and disturb the peace of the town. In the wake of what has happened, "closets" begin to open; some characters emerge with dignity (the first openly gay lesbian instructor at the university, for example), while others (the close-minded Baptist minister) cause anyone with sensibility to recoil with disgust. It's a formidable challenge to the dozen or so cast members to add their brief brush strokes to the painting of a town, but (with a few touches in costuming and shifts in diction) they prove a passionate and committed ensemble.

While I am familiar with performers like Den Smith, Caroline Sposto, and Sylvia Barringer Wilson (and knew to expect solid work from them), I was well pleased with the efforts of the entire cast, mostly new to me -- no posturing, just good, natural work. While the dreaded fence where Matthew was fatally bound is present throughout the entire play, except for a podium and a few chairs, a set is, frankly, unnecessary. What visually enhanced the proceedings, however, was the series of images of Laramie itself - the hospital, the university, the bar, etc. - which dominate the back wall.

Den-Nicholas Smith, who directed as well as acted, has tamed what could have been an unwieldy beast of a play. The brief moments that highlight the characters and events in the play come so fast and so effectively that we scarcely notice the length. THE LARAMIE PROJECT rivets us with its powerful, multifaceted drama. Through June 14.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)