BWW REVIEW: Theatre Travels Tackles Tectonic Theatre Project's Iconic THE LARAMIE PROJECT and THE LARAMIE PROJECT: 10 YEARS LATER
Thursday 29th November and Saturday 1 December 2018. 7pm, Reginald Theatre
New theatre group Theatre Travels takes on the ambitious task of retelling THE LARAMIE PROJECT and THE LARAMIE PROJECT:10 YEARS LATER two decades on from Matthew Shepard's brutal murder. Presented in repertory, the verbatim theatre pieces serve as a reminder of the origins of the push for Hate Crimes Prevention Act to include acts based on sexuality and the fact that whilst the world has come a long way with regards to tolerance and acceptance, there is still a way to go.
The original work, THE LARAMIE PROJECT, was a result of members from the New York based Tectonic Theatre Project travelling to Laramie Wyoming a month after Matthew Shepard's death to interview the people of the small town to determine their views of the brutal assault which lead to Shepard's death. The follow up piece, THE LARAMIE PROJECT: 10 YEARS LATER is based on the same group returning to Laramie 10 years after Shepard's murder to find out how the town was faring after being in the spotlight, defined by the murder to the rest of the world. As verbatim theatre or investigative theatre both works utilize the exact words from the interviews as well as journal entries from the members of the theatre group.
The first piece seeks to allow the residents of Laramie to paint a picture of their town as they see it rather than the image that the media had presented to America and the wider world. Getting a measure of the communities' views towards Shepard's sexuality which was deemed the major motivator for Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson's selection of the openly gay university student, THE LARAMIE PROJECT found that the general understanding of the events were aligned with the police investigations and the court cases where both men were sentenced to life in prison. Whilst the first work sees the citizens try to convince the interviewers, and therefore the wider world, that Laramie doesn't have a problem with homophobia, their way of sanitizing the truth and is much more subtle, claiming thoughts are generally of a 'live and let live' nature and that those that are homophobic are outliers, the return saw a much more overt manipulation of history. Whilst the first work gained a measure of the town's attitudes towards homosexuality and murder and the subsequent proposed punishment of the perpetrators, the second provided a surprising reflection of how people manipulate the truth to make it more palatable, ignoring the facts, discounting the police as having and agenda and believing a television 'documentary' which skewed the truth and ignored the evidence.
Both plays are presented on the same set designed by Dave Angelico. The rural American setting is alluded to with a rough timber plank wall with evidence of years of paint peeling forming a large backdrop. A raised platform at the rear of the stage enables an element of vertical variety and depth to the staging. To large timber flat roof sheds dominate the sides of the stage and provide additional staging platforms from which performers speak from high above the stage. The set dressing comprises an assortment of chairs and a few timber boxes. Props and costumes are strategically placed around the space on hooks, in hidey holes and in the boxes.
The cast of 9 comprising John Michael Burdon, Laura Djanegara, Andrew Hofman, Francisco Lopez, Linda Nicholls-Gidley, Matthew Pritchard, Dominique Purdue, Emily Richardson and Charlotte Tilelli do their best but ultimately there are issues with the performances' ability to engage and connect with the audience. Carly Fisher and Rosie Niven share the role of directing the plays but unfortunately there are shortcomings in the vision and execution of the work. The use of the raised 'sheds' does not add to the work but rather serves to distance the work even further from the audience who are merely observers rather than being engaged with the work. Given the intimate space of the Reginald Theatre and the original intention to allow the people of Laramie and the members of the Tectonic Theatre Project to tell their story and re-shape misconceptions set by the media, one would expect the performers to connect with the audience during the monologues but there was a strong sense that the actors were instructed to perform to the exits or a unfocused middle distance where as quick grabs of eye contact around the audience would ensure a greater investment in the story.
Whilst there are some striking costuming choices like Romaine Patterson's (Laura Djanegara) Angel Action wings, Adrienne Dell's choice to not have a uniform costuming for the members of the Techtonic Theatre Project, relying on the Dictaphones that the Project members carried to interview people, also makes it difficult to determine who is talking. Lighting cues and blocking of where performances are delivered from also need to be tightened considerably as performers are often to the side of a spotlight or lights are slow to come up or fade allowing focus to be distracted to other performers entering or exiting whilst another is still meant to be the focus. Whilst it is necessary to have a degree of movement to give variety to the work, at times there is an unnecessary excess of movement that does not serve the story, particularly in the interview scene between Techtonic's Leigh Fondakowski (Francisco Lopez) and Aaron McKinney (Andrew Hofman) in the prison visiting room, presented with repetitive swiveling of a room full of inmates and visitors, further diminishing the potential power of the scene.
Accents that range from the Mid-West Wyoming sound, New Yorkers and a range of other accents from residents who hadn't grown up in Laramie, are presented for the most part very well. There is a good consistency in the physicality attributed to characters as performers revisit roles and as with other incarnations of these plays by other companies' roles are often gender swapped, mostly with female performers playing male roles. Whilst many of the characters are presented with a realism some draw more on stereotypes, pushing the presentations into caricature particularly, that of drug users Shannon and Jen and Laramie Police Department's Sergeant Hing.
THE LARAMIE PROJECT and THE LARAMIE PROJECT: 10 YEARS LATER are still important works as whilst the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed into American law by President Obama there is still an intolerance towards the LGBTIQ community as evidenced in some of the awful behavior witnessed during Australia's vote on same sex marriage. Whilst some of the issues with these productions are unlikely to be able to be rectified hopefully issues like audience connection and lighting cues can be cleaned up to present an engaging experience.
THE LARAMIE PROJECT and THE LARAMIE PROJECT: 10 YEARS LATER