By Moises Kaufman
Directed by Jason Southerland and Nancy Curran Willis
Boston Theatre Works
Tremont Theatre
Boston, MA through November 18th, 2001

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Boston Theatre Works has taken on Tectonic Theater's event play, "The Laramie Project" as an instance of the Boston company's particular mission -- because the script "examines what community means and how we come together to overcome these darker trends." BTW Artistic Director Jason Southerland and co-director Nancy Curran Willis have welded together an ensemble that does indeed feel like a community, even though only a few of their actors have worked with BTW previously. The company is not daunted by the extra layer of interpretation involved in presenting a piece based on the personal witness of the Tectonic actors, who along with credited author and director Moises Kaufman made six trips to Laramie Wyoming and taped 200 interviews with Laramie residents in order to portray the town's "coming together" in the aftermath of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in October of 1998. Individually, the BTW actors play the members of the Tectonic company as simply another set of characters, and collectively they present a resounding "yes!" in answer to the question Kaufman posed for Tectonic: "Can theatre contribute to the national dialog on current events?"

The BTW "Laramie" is beautifully crafted, emotionally accessible, and generous. It proclaims its own communal decency and dignity, and discovers decency and dignity in most of the people whose lives it examines and in the social fabric of the western town that prosperity passed by. Kaufman says that he took the idea of witness and the aesthetic vocabulary of the Tectonic piece from a Brecht essay on his method for creating Epic Theatre. Who could have predicted that Brecht's ideas applied to an incident of deadly gay bashing would lead to a kind of patriotic love fest, a ritual of healing?

The town of Laramie is represented by a stage floor painted like a highway and by sizable screens with slide projections and a couple of TV monitors to add local color. As the memory of the media frenzy over the torture and murder of this frail gay college student fades, it is probably a good idea to have the visual images of Laramie summoned up while the play's words are sorting them out and making sense of them. It is certainly an impressive accomplishment on the part of the BTW design team. The dominating image is that of the log fence where Matthew Shepard was tied and beaten and left to die, bleak against a brown and wintry field. Very little of the script is dialogue between characters. The directors use stage position and lighting to vary the effect of monologue following monologue, narrowing down to intimate and confessional, widening to take in groups, and including an implied audience during speeches given for public consumption. A lively active surface is laid over a dark and solemn ground.

Eight actors share "Laramie"'s narration and play some sixty different people: James Barton, Kent French, Anna Gottlieb, Tom Lawton, Laura Napoli, Sheila Stasack, Holly Vanasse and Forrest Walter. Their characterizations are facilitated by the clever costuming of Molly Trainer, but all sixty people are vividly differentiated without resort to disguise or caricature. I always recognized returning characters, even when I wasn't quite sure which actors were embodying them. There's Marge Murray, the "best damn bartender in town" and Reggie, her 39 year old daughter on the police force who cut Matthew down from the buck fence where he'd been hanging for 18 hours; and Aaron, the kid out bicycling in the middle of nowhere to who found Matthew. There's the other bartender, the sympathetic one who saw Matthew leave with his killers, and "should have stopped them"; and the killers themselves, young men with no prospects and police records; their girl friends and neighbors; the local clergy; Zubaida Ula, a lone Muslim woman; faculty and fellow students like Jeddidiah, who goes from a homophobic background to playing Prior Walter in "Angels in America" at the University where Matthew was a student; journalists, TV people, doctors, detectives, lawyers, the judge -- and Matthew Shepard's parents. These were all well done, but several widely different characterizations performed by Forest Walter won a special place in my affections.

The action of "The Laramie Project" is divided into three parts, and is designed to run two and a half hours, with two intermissions. I think this may have been a better arrangement for the original production, presented before audiences with personal involvement. It makes two spaces for people to talk about their own relation to the event, and to assimilate what they have learned. But it makes too much space--- the intermissions run overtime, and the audience is tempted to shake off the mood and gossip, and then twice have to be lured back into Laramie at the top of a new act. I think Techtonic should consider allowing subsequent productions to trim about 15 minutes off the script and run it straight through. At under two hours, the piece would feel more like the event it most closely resembles-- a well performed funeral for someone of symbolic importance. If this sounds strange, it is only because this ancient and necessary function of theatre doesn't fit very well into our Show Business model. Advertise a funeral, and sell tickets? Promise a good cry, and an affirmation of communial continuity? Did I mention that the language of "Laramie" is unusually inoffensive for a cutting edge political/sexual play? I noticed only one instance of the f-word, and since that comes very late and out of the mouth of an angel, it might even slip past a high school principal. "The Laramie Project" proceeds tactfully, even as it includes as much gritty detail as is compatible with its Funeral Function: mourn, re-prioritize, re-connect, resolve do better together in the light of our common mortality. BTW seems to have recognized the "beyond Show Business As Usual" nature of the material and responded by committing to benefit performances and community outreach, especially partnerships with local organizations supporting "gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and questioning youth 22 and under." This atmosphere of sincerity and service is as important to BTW's success with "The Laramie Project" as all the talent and technical skill that went into its staging.

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