Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Laramie Project"

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note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Larry Stark

"The Laramie Project"

by Moises Kaufman
Members of Techtonic Theater Project
Directed by Nancy Curran Willis and Jason Southerland

Scenic Design by Ruth Neeman
Lighting Design by Karen Perlow
Costume Design by Molly Trainer
Sound Design by Jeremy Wilson
Properties Design/ASM Susan Davis
Projections Design by Jon Sachs
Dramaturg Brandon Kornell
Dialect Coach Nina Pleasants
Video Consultant Rob Massey
Technical Director Eric Huss
Production Manager Dana Knox
Stage Manager John Murtaugh

Rulon Stacey, Mormon Church Leaders, John Peacock and Harry Woods
Doc O'Connor, Rob DeBree, Andrew Gomez and Reverend Fred Phelps
Reggie Flutie, Rebecca Hilliker, Kerry Drake and Trish Steiger
Sgt. Hing, Matt Galloway (the bartender), Father Roger, Aaron McKinney and Dr. Cantway
Aaron Kreifels, Romaine Patterson, Zackie Salmon and Jen (a friend of Aaron's)
Catherine Connolly, Eileen Engen, Sherry Aanenson, Lucy Thompson, Baptist Minister and Zubaida Ula
Marge Murray, Shannon (a friend of Aaron's), Sherry Johnson and Shadow
Jedadiah Schultz, Dennis Shepard, Matt Mickleson, Russell Henderson and Stephen Mead Johnson

What does theater do that film or television can't? What does television or film do that theater can do better? The Boston Theatre Works production of "The Laramie Project" provides a perfect textbook answer to these questions. It's a DocuDrama without the impersonal distancing that the flatness of film or the fishbowl-smallness of television impose on the material. The show investigates what happens to a close-knit small-town community when a heinous hate-crime has the entire Media Industry throwing microphones and spotlights and magnifying lenses on every aspect of normal life and thinking. But none of this is crammed inside a fishbowl or flattened into impersonality: each actor, playing four or five different real people, stands on stage as a real person, talking in real time about their recollections, their lives, and their opinions. It is brilliant theater.

The play is divided into three acts --- and the material in each is intense enough that audiences need two cooling intermissions to digest and discuss it all. One at a time the cast arrives warmly dressed for a week or two of a Wyoming winter, slipping off their coats or jackets to become the people they interviewed. Act one introduces the inquisitive actors, then the townspeople, then the crime itself. People who were eye-witnesses before or after, people who knew the principals, policemen and religious leaders step into existence for a moment or a line and, over a shoulder, introduce the next speaker. The second act concerns itself with the trial of the first perp, the shifting opinions of the town, and the omnipresence of microphones. The final act turns on the bitterly unforgiving "leniency" of the victim's parents who condemned the wretch to a life of remembering that their son died by his hand.

If the perpetrator's re-enacted confession is to be believed, Matthew Shepard was tied to a fence and beaten to death because he groped a straight man's thigh, but the continual, shifty subtext of the small-city minds of Laramie --- that "there's lots of 'em in town, but they keep to themselves" --- and the equivocal sermons from ministers all hint at ambivalent attitudes toward that obscene self-justification for murder.

This play fits comfortably into the big, wide stage of the Tremont Theatre, and shots of the city projected on three screens --- not as scenery, but as reminders of where things happened --- define the locale. There are television-screens and real-time cameras occasionally turning people's public pronouncements into media events. All this serves to illustrate the balanced objectivity of the play.

But it's the actors, live on that stage, speaking directly to the audience in real time in the personae of at least thirty-six unique individuals, that make this story live. In such a milieu, the shift of eyes or the sudden crack in a person's voice becomes searingly expressive. And there were two directors --- Nancy Curran Willis and Jason Southerland --- orchestrating the whole. (And, let us not forget, generous corporations paying to bring this experience alive.)

DocuDrama on stage is not new. The Federal Theater staged several "Living Newspapers" back in 1936. But perhaps it was their re-creation of FDR's statement that "One Third of A Nation" was ill-housed, ill-clothed and ill-fed that caused an embarrassed Congress to slam forever a door against public funding for American theater. "The Laramie project" proves that there are indeed things movies and television do that live theater can do more thoroughly, more honestly, and more inescapably. And everyone connected with this production, from the t-v and projection wizards to the financiers, must feel justly proud of the compelling results.


"The Laramie Project" (19 October - 11 November)
Tremont Theater, 276 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 824-8000

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