Note: Entire contents copyright 2004 by A. S. Waterman
Reviewed by A.S. Waterman
Written by Moises Kaufman
Directed by Anthony DeRose
The cast, in multiple revolving roles:
J. Chris Quint
Can a sobering message be good theatre? In THE LARAMIE PROJECT, award-winning playwright Moises Kaufman adapts the story of the murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard into a maelstrom of poignant vignettes, based on interviews with the townspeople of Laramie and the actors who portrayed them in Kaufman's own production of the play. The result garnered Time Magazine's praise as "one of the 10 best plays of 2000." Now, Providence's newest theatre group, The People's Theatre, presents THE LARAMIE PROJECT as its first offering on the time-honored stage of the Bell St. Chapel. According to the Director's Note, it is intended to make a statement and a call to action, yet most people go to a theatre to be entertained. Will audiences flock to see it? One can only hope.
The 1998 murder was a vicious hate crime in which 21-year-old Shepard was abducted and beaten because of his homosexuality, then left to die in a Wyoming field. The story gripped the attention of the country as it captured news headlines and video bytes; yet the heart and soul were left out of the news stories, as were many of the important details. For instance, how many people know that Shepard was a diminutive 5'2" and 110 lbs., no match for even one of his two tormentors? And how many people are aware that the hospital spokesperson received hate mail after he choked up in tears while announcing Shepard's death? In THE LARAMIE PROJECT, the story gradually unfolds like a murder mystery, many-faceted and fascinating as it is told in the many voices of the people whose lives were permanently changed by it. A talented cast of 14 players shift in and out of multiple roles with ease -- from the Bible-brandishing redneck screaming for Shepard to burn in hell, to Shepard's grief-stricken father sparing his killer's life (Tom DiMaggio) ... from the guilt-ridden bartender who felt he could have tried to prevent Shepard's abduction, to the stone-faced, remorseless killer himself (Dennis McMenamy) ... from the shell-shocked boy who found the body, to the eager student-actor (Jason Hair) confounded because his parents refused to see him in a gay role although they lauded his performance as a mass murderer previously. There are too many good portrayals to list them all, but all contribute strongly to this well-directed, cohesive production.
The play hammers home a powerful message about evil, narrow-mindedness, compassion and hope, yet it is not a dry history lesson or grim docu-drama. Rather, it is a beautifully crafted, riveting tale that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats while treating them to a tableau of solid performances. It is an emotional roller-coaster ride, and it shows some very ugly sides of humankind; however, so did ALL THE KING'S MEN, A STREECAR NAMED DESIRE, and many other modern classics. A play takes many years to reach that status, but this outstanding dramatic work is well on its way.
On press night, the cast played to an audience of five, one of whom had wandered in off the street. Nonetheless, applause at the end was loud and long, and guests expressed their appreciation for having been there. Most of them also expressed surprise. "I heard what it was about, and I didn't want to go," one woman remarked about a previous production of THE LARAMIE PROJECT she had seen at a local college. She found she was glad to have seen that one, and felt that this newest offering by The People's Theatre was extremely well done.
Founded by employees of Providence's renowned Trinity Repertory Company, The People's Theatre describes its mission as "to provoke thought, conversation and emotion without boundaries." Its Web site further states, "We are not a theatre striving for standing ovations, we are a theatre yearning for our audience to jump up and change their world." Who is to say that it can't do both?
THE LARAMIE PROJECT is a powerful statement, and it is very good theatre. See it for its message, for its beautifully crafted story-telling technique, or because it's a riveting story and fine entertainment. Just don't miss this opportunity to tell your children that you witnessed the early days of an American classic.
THE LARAMIE PROJECT runs through August 1 at the Bell St. Chapel in Providence. Show times are 8 p.m. July 22-24 and 29-31, and 2 p.m. July 25 and August 1. Tickets are $10, or $8 for students and seniors.