20 years ago, In October, 1998, in the middle of the prairie outside Laramie, Wyoming, Matthew Shepard, a 21 year old student at the University of Wyoming, was tied to a fence post, tortured, pistol whipped about the head, robbed, and left to die alone. His comatose body, face so disfigured the only flesh that could be seen was where tears flushed a path through the blood, was discovered eighteen hours later by a student bicyclist. He was taken to a nearby hospital, put on life support and died five days later. Parenthetically, it was not the first time he’d been beaten up; you see, the young man was gay.
Not surprisingly, this awful hate crime generated a media firestorm, and ultimately inspired the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act signed into law by President Barak Obama in 2009. In an incredibly ambitious project, apparently with the intention of creating a portrait in theater of the event and its impact on Laramie, Moisés Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Project traveled back and forth to Laramie shortly after the tragedy and spent some one and one-half years interviewing the people of Laramie, both those directly involved in the case and other citizens. Based on these interviews, project journals, and textual materials, Kaufman and the group wrote the play The Laramie Project, later made into a film.
AstonRep Theatre Company is now presenting The Laramie Project at The Raven Theatre Center, 6157 N. Clark, through July 8th. Featuring a remarkably versatile cast of 11, each of whom portray numerous roles, this absorbing and thought provoking work reveals, under painted sylvan skies, upon a floor covered with a blowup of Shepard’s open young face and accompanied to guitar strumming and the singing of familiar ballads, the depths of ignorance and hatred- as well as the workings of compassion- extant in society.
All characters in The Laramie Project are based on real individuals, many of whom waived anonymity; the characters step forward, introduced by narrators, and speak as though the subject of an interview. The resulting moments tell a story of a time and place, of a crime and it’s aftermath, of a trial, convictions and sentencing, of ruined/lost lives. The non-linear presentation and unselfconscious real words are chilling in their depictions of what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil”, as well as in the humane expressions of a myriad forms of regret.
A great deal of reference is made by the locals to the role of “God” in people’s lives, in the context of that conceived entity’s direction in human lives, but almost nothing is said of the proscription to “love thy neighbor as thyself”. Instead the citizens spoke of “looking the other way”, of “living and let live”, as long as they weren’t “bothered”. The number of character’s willing to voice their condemnation of homosexuality as a behavior or lifestyle choice is mind boggling, as is their casual dismissal of any notion of self/joint responsibility.
This reviewer left the theatre feeling unenlightened, trapped in a vain and gunslinging America, and saddened by the speech delivered by the father of Matthew Shepard after a brokered deal in which he and Shepard’s mother acquiesced to a double life sentence without the possibility of parole for one of the convicted killers. While admitting he wished the offender was to die, he expressed the hope that the young man suffer and think of Matthew every day.
Parenthetically, Mr. Shepard mentioned that while his son had lain suffering in the field, he wasn’t alone as God was with him. Could this be the same God that taught those Mormons of Laramie that a family consists of “a man, a woman, and their children?”
What this means, of course, is that I had a visceral and idiosyncratic response to the play. The Laramie Project was successful in capturing and then recreating a myriad of human reactions. I was humiliated within myself to realize that- just for a moment- I also wanted the killers to be sentenced to death. The impact of the recorded and recreated human emotions serves as a catalyst for our efforts at gaining knowledge and understanding of how such an event can occur.
The cast does a bang-up job presenting numerous characters flawlessly with no real change of costume; it’s all done with inflection, a shift in body posture, vocal intonation. Starring the fine ensemble cast of Dana Anderson, Alexandra Bennett, Liz Cloud, Rob Frankel, Mathew Harris, Roberto Jay, Amy Kasper, Ray Kasper, Erin O’Brien, Sara Pavlak McGuire, Peter Surma and Chelsea Turner, tautly directed by the very talented Derek Bertelsen, who used astute staging techniques in grouping the personalities for maximum impact.
Kudos to the production team, including Jeremiah Barr, scenic design; Uriel Gomez, costume design; Samantha Barr, lighting design; Robert Tobin, sound design and Krista Hansen, dialect coach, all of whom have helped create a memorable production well worth seeing.
For information about AstonRep Theatre Company, “Intimate Theatre ON THE EDGE”, go to astonrep website
For information and tickets to all the fine plays presented at The Raven Theatre Center, go to raventheatre website
All photos by Emily Schwartz