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March 24, 2012 | by  | in Arts Theatre |
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Review – The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later

By Moises Kaufman, Leigh Fondakowski, Stephen Belber, Greg Pierotti, & Andy Paris.
Directed by Katharine McGill and Daniel Williams.
Cast: Victoria Abbott, Harriette Cowan, Simon Kevin Leary, Shadon Meredith, Jessica Robinson, Bryony Skillington, Leon Wadham, & Martyn Wood.
BATS Theatre, 22 March, 8:30pm.
Reviewed by Ryan Brown-Haysom. 

Prior to October 1998, the university town of Laramie in south-west Wyoming was famous chiefly for two things. On the one hand there were cowboys: the 1955 film The Man From Laramie was a classic of the Western genre, and the last collaboration of actor James Stewart and director Anthony Mann. On the other hand, there was tobacco: Laramie Cigarettes ceased to be produced in the 1950s, but enjoyed a long afterlife as a brand of cigarette papers and in the animated TV show The Simpsons. Between these two poles – the Wild West and the remorseless corporation – wide-skied Laramie seemed to represent the heart of America in more than just a geographical sense. Then, a fortnight before Halloween, a 21-year-old student was fatally beaten outside the town in a particularly horrific and sustained attack. The victim – Matthew Shepard – was blond and photogenic, a wholesome all-American son of the soil. He was also gay, and as the homophobic motive for his murder became clear, the case assumed an almost mythic dimension.

In the midst of a political and media storm, Shepard quickly became a martyr of America’s culture wars, the sweet-faced poster-child of gay rights and hate-crimes legislation. Laramie, conversely, became the epitome of red-state backwardness; its cherished cowboy-image derided and condemned as the root of anti-gay violence. As the story became more embroidered with identity-politics and myth, the human tragedy at the heart of the drama threatened to be obscured. In 2000, the playwright Moises Kaufman and the Denver-based Tectonic Theatre Project premiered The Laramie Project, a production composed entirely of verbatim quotes from interviews conducted in Laramie in the aftermath of the killing. This production struck a nerve because of the clarity with which it illuminated the human stories behind the rhetoric. Ten years later, Kaufman returned to Laramie to see what had changed and what had stayed the same in the decade since Shepard’s murder. The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later is the result, including not only interviews with Laramie residents whose words appeared in the earlier production, but also startling testimony from Shepard’s killers, who agreed to be interviewed for the production.

On the whole, this ‘epilogue’ is a mixed success. It retains much of the directness and drama of the original, but only for those already familiar with the back-story (details are barely sketched in for the benefit of the uninformed). More problematically, though, there is a troubling sense of stories left untold. When Shepard was murdered in 1998, a beleaguered Bill Clinton was in the crisis of his presidency. When Kaufman returned to Wyoming ten years later, Barack Obama was on the verge of seizing electoral victory from John McCain. The intervening decade was one of the most disastrous in American history, and there are hints of the drama in the background. “Dick Cheney sold half our state to Halliburton,” declares one character early on. Later, the University of Wyoming defers extending partnership benefits to gay staff members due to its dismal financial situation. These passing references hint at a larger drama going on in the background – the steady crumbling of American hegemony – but this theme is never picked up. If the War on Terror and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have had an impact on Laramie, we hear nothing of it. This wouldn’t matter, if Laramie’s role as the capital of the heartsick heartland weren’t so central to the play’s power. The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later attempts to walk a line between the particularity of the stories it tells and the universality of its message, but the play’s rather narrow focus on gay rights overlooks the matter of how LGBT issues relate to broader questions of civil, social, and economic justice. Although the Laramie cement factory is mentioned as a ‘different world,’ the focus of the play remains the community of the University, which Shepard attended but his young working-class killers did not. The relations of gay men and women to the wider community around them are left unexplored, and this threatens the play’s claim to say much that is meaningful about how Laramie has changed during the Bush years, much less to speak to the state of America as a whole.

Much of the play is actually given over to refuting the claims made in 2004 by a controversial 20/20 report: that Shepard’s killing was motivated not by prejudice but by robbery and perhaps a drugs deal gone awry. In fact these claims were never awfully persuasive, but the amount of stage-time devoted to defeating them is excessive and – at times – tedious. The image of Matthew Shepard as a gay martyr has to be defended, even by a production ostensibly trying to probe the human heart of the rhetorical storm. Far more powerful are the re-enactments of interviews with Matthew Shepard’s murderers, Aaron McKinney (Simon Kevin Leary) and Russell Henderson (Leon Wadham). For all the attempts of the playwrights to pin down Henderson and McKinney’s motive as homophobic hate, these interviews hint at a far more troubling truth: that evil is often motiveless and ultimately inexplicable, even to the guilty party. This dark void at the centre of the narrative is brightened only by the final interview, with Shepard’s mother (Jessica Robinson), who has embraced a role she took on unwillingly as a champion of gay and lesbian rights on the national stage. Here the personal story and the myth touch, where grief is expressed in political engagement. It is at once the most affecting and the most hopeful moment of an often-bleak play.

Katherine McGill and Daniel Williams’s superbly assured production is blessed with eight highly talented young actors. Each actor adopts half a dozen parts at different points in the play, distinguished by their clothing, props, tone of voice, or body language. The pace of the play is relentless, with scenes and characters shifting rapidly in a way that suggests the storm of responses Shepard’s death provoked. This is a formidable challenge for any cast to negotiate, and it is a tribute to the energy and dedication of the players that the production remains thoroughly absorbing. The collaborative nature of the production demands that each actor carries a heavy burden of responsibility, and it is no small commendation to say that there were no weak performances. Indeed, the quality of the acting overall was so high that it’s hard to single out any particular player for special praise, although Simon Kevin Leary’s version of Aaron McKinney and Jessica Robinson’s Judy Shepard are especially memorable. Unfortunately, the ill-advised use of projected images and some highly melodramatic sound-effects threaten to distract the audience from what would otherwise be very simple and very powerful performances.

The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later is not always easy to watch, and its polemical aims are sometimes too apparent. But this is a really gripping production, and it deserves to attract a wider audience than ‘queer theatre’ usually manages to muster.

 

The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later Runs until 5 April (no shows 25/26 March and 1/2 April), 8:30pm. Tickets: $20/$14.

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