note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Carl A. Rossi
I am one of the few people on this planet to have not seen a production of Moises Kaufman's docudrama, GROSS INDECENCY: THE THREE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE, but I have seen his latest one, THE LARAMIE PROJECT (in collaboration with Tectonic Theater Project), in a current production by Boston Theatre Works. The play presents the case of Matthew Shepherd, the 22-year-old gay man who in 1998 was brutally beaten, robbed, tied to a fence and left to die on the outskirts of his town – Laramie, Wyoming. The (straight) accused, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, claimed that Shepherd propositioned them in a bar – which, in their opinion, justified their actions. Shepherd's subsequent death and the trials of McKinney and Henderson made national headlines, sparking much debate, pro and con; and America – briefly – realized and was forced to admit that hate crimes against homosexuals do happen in the land of the free – and often. Again, I say "briefly" – as one of LARAMIE'S characters spits out at play's end, after all the hoopla of the murder and the trials died down, nothing has changed in Shepherd's town.
To tell Shepherd's story, Kaufman and Tectonic Theater went to Laramie and interviewed its townspeople, capturing facts, confessions and opinions that the media never had access to – nor interest in (not surprisingly, the media gets a slamming, but the Tectonic staff come off as kind and considerate). Kaufman and his collaborators skillfully weave their interviews into a narrative that mixes warmth and bigotry, much humor and some hatred, views biased and balanced. There are no lead characters, per se; what the audience hears is the voice of Laramie itself (Shepherd's character never appears onstage). As THE LARAMIE PROJECT unfolded, I was reminded of Edgar Lee Master's SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY, where the characters step forward to tell their tale in their own voices and their own music; by curtain call, a town has been built around you – and you have lived in it. Act One is slow in setting the scene, but Acts Two and Three move forward with the inevitability of Greek tragedy (though the play is, paradoxically, positive, life-affirming and forgiving).
My only criticism is that Shepherd himself remains a shadowy presence throughout; a sweet little ghost even while alive (would he have been so widely embraced in death had he been a tall, strapping "top"?). Were there no letters, diaries, poetry, etc. of Shepherd's to quote from in order to flesh him out? At the very least, there should be a recurring image of Shepherd on the screens hanging over the stage (his photo appears fleetingly in two headline banners). Keep in mind, there are people who have never heard of Matthew Shepherd – or have already forgotten him.
Co-directors Nancy Curran Willis and Jason Southerland have been blessed with one of the best acting ensembles to be seen in a long time; in a play which could have been all headlines and stock characters (The Sheriff, The Bartender, The Police Officer, etc.), these eight actors/painters - James Barton, Kent French, Anne Gottlieb, Tom Lawlor, Laura Napoli, Sheila Stasack, Holly Vanasse, and Forrest Walker -– swiftly and effortlessly sketch out dozens of characters; only a few (the media – again – and some fanatics) approach easy caricature. Indulge me for singling out Laura Napoli, for she is most affecting as the young man who found Shepherd tied to that fence (and at first mistook him for a scarecrow). With her hair tucked into a baseball cap and her hands stuffed into her pockets, Ms. Napoli beautifully conveys the flat-footed (and voiced) awkwardness of a small-town youth not only struggling to comprehend the role that Fate has cast him in, but also – for the first time in his life – learning to be eloquent in public.
I see a long pair of legs for THE LARAMIE PROJECT; it entertains as well as teaches and can be staged with a minimum of production (aside from images of The Fence, the Laramie slide show in BTW's production is a bit of a fifth wheel; this ensemble is so good, in fact, you may forget to watch it). Schools, community theatres and other groups (prisons?) will no doubt want to produce the play in the future – but, mind you, BTW's cast is a tough act to follow.
Would you believe there's a production of Patrick Hamilton's ROPE now playing at the Stoneham Theatre, in which two (assumed) gay men murder a straight friend just for the thrill of it? Seeing both of these productions should make for an interesting discussion, yes?