The Laramie Project (directed by Josh Feldman, with assistance from Jonathan Brown-Gilbert) is unlike any play I’ve ever seen. It addresses a real life tragedy, but not in the typical theatrical manner. It follows the Tectonic Theatre Project, a group of real-life actors who visited Laramie, Wyoming. These actors interviewed a series of townspeople about the recent murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay man. From these interviews, the group wrote a play about their experience, piecing together interviews into a flowing narrative. The play is interesting in that the actors are clearly playing actors, reenacting taped interviews instead of embodying characters. It’s an original approach that yields interesting, if mixed, results.
In 1998, Matthew Shepard, a gay man, was murdered by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson in Laramie, Wyoming. This killing prompted a debate about homophobia and violence to gay people, making Laramie a media and political hotspot. The Tectonic Theatre Project visited Laramie, speaking with dozens of people. The play traces their research as they piece together what happened before, during, and after the murder. It also splices in scenes of the Tectonic actors discussing the project. The play falls between the genre of biography, true crime, and metafiction.
The cast (Hilary Allister, Lisa Corey, Joseph Fish, Tom Lute, Keely Olstad, Alex McVittie, Liam Morantz, and Mike Tucker) faced a difficult challenge with this play. Each actor plays multiple parts, embodying Tectonic Project members, townsfolk, police, hospital workers, and journalists. They change rapidly into different characters, often within the same scene. It’s a tall order and the cast do an admirable job of footing the bill. The changes are seamless and quick, never slowing the fast pace of the play. The actors are incredibly efficient, rarely flubbing lines or distracting from the main action. Mike Tucker is a standout, particularly as a witty bartender who earns a fair amount of laughs, and as Fred Phelps, the infamous Westboro Baptist Church pastor. Tucker commands the stage as the vitriolic hate monger, spewing forth bile and venom. Liam Morantz delivers a fine performance as Shepard’s father, particularly during the powerful final monologue. Keely Olstad brings warmth and grief to a recurring nurse character who tended to Shepard’s fatal injuries.
Unfortunately, the cast often struggles with the multitude of characters. There are so many different roles that the actors are unable to imbue them all with definitive personalities. It is difficult to tell characters apart when they have identical behaviours and mannerisms. It is an understandable flaw, as any actor would be hard pressed to make dozens of characters distinct and unique. But this lack of variety hampers the quality of the show and limits a talented cast.
The set has several chairs and tables, which can represent anything from a bar to an open field. It is pleasantly sparse and the rare lighting changes help accentuate the mood of a given scene. A projector displays text above the actors, serving as chapter headings. It is a nice addition, although it occasionally includes moving video, which can be distracting.
There are several great scenes in Laramie. When Fred Phelps launches his homophobic rant at center stage, several actors carrying white sheets walk in front of him. They hold their sheets up like angel wings, blocking Phelps from view, peace literally obscuring hate. As mentioned, Liam Morantz’s monologue is subtly powerful and many cast members deliver nice, quiet moments of reflection. When the actors have time to sink their teeth into a role, they shine.
The biggest strength and weakness of Laramie is its biographical/metafictional style. It is blatantly artificial in a theatrical sense, since the viewer is always aware that they are watching a play. But this artificiality, ironically, gives the piece a strong sense of realism. Even if the actors don’t portray wholly three-dimensional characters, their dialogue comes from real people. It has the air of authenticity and feels like a window into a moment in time. Powerful lines about homophobia, regret, fear, and hope are rendered even stronger due to their basis in reality.
But this realistic approach cuts both ways. Actors don’t interact with each other so much as recite transcribed interviews. There aren’t really many scenes, just snatches of dialogue. The writing feels real but the scenes don’t always reach that same level. Some moments are lacking in a theatrical sense, with simple stage movements and choreography. Laramie may be more effective as an investigative radio piece, as some of its elements seem opposed to the strengths of theatre.
My criticisms of the play are not meant to deter anyone from seeing it. I think everyone should see this piece. It offers such a unique experience that everyone should have a different reaction. It is imperfect art, but art nonetheless. It offers a step outside a theatre-goers comfort zone, and such an offer should never be refused.