Packed into the familiar setting of the King’s Wardroom, Bad Ideas Theatre Collective aimed to transport its audience from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Laramie, Wyoming. They were presenting not only the facts, but also the people affected by the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard.
The Wardroom was an interesting choice by the directors, providing a much easier setting to become immersed in, but with clear drawbacks.
There were two clear stage areas in the bar, with certain seats all around having been reserved for characters to sit in. At its best, it allowed for powerful moments delivered inches away from the audience. When it was unfavourable, it meant that audience members would lose sight of the actors performing. The longest that action was ever out of view was about two and a half minutes.
Aside from sightlines, hearing actors became an issue at several points in the play. The Wardroom was not built so that sound could travel easily from one side to the other, so actors had to compensate, to varying degrees of success.
“It is an absolute, goddamn nightmare to perform in,” said Sam Barringer, one of the actors. He said several elements made the space troublesome, but also added a more symbolic touch. He mentioned bad sightlines due to the pillars in the middle of the Wardroom, as well as how hard it was for sound to travel in the space. In regards to the lack of view in some cases, for example, Barringer said that it provided another element of immersion: “You’re never going to experience every side of the event.”
The play follows its original writers – members of the Tectonic Theatre Project – as they travel to Laramie where they interview the people involved and impacted by the original 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21 year-old gay university student. Its plot bounces back and forth between narration and interviews of residents. This was all acted out by the cast, with them transitioning from Laramie residents to Tectonic members.
Its plot is broken up into three acts, each with a different director. While there were never any clear differences in the performance as to how each act was directed differently, there was an air of freshness and directness that kept each act from becoming stale. Each act had a different direction that fed smoothly into the next.
The first act was directed by Connor Adsett, who said that the purpose of his act was to set a different tone than the following two.
“For me,” said Adsett, “Act One is setting the scene of Laramie to set up act two and three to happen.”
Act One was the longest of the play, clocking in at just over an hour. It introduced the audience to the different residents of Laramie, each with their own clear stances and motives. One of the best things Act One did was only alluding to the murder of Shepard, keeping a distance from the event so that the audience could become just as invested in the residents of Laramie as the murder.
It was clear that this act was meant to allow the audience to immerse themselves in these characters and actors, drawing them into a sense of familiarity. That way, they can believe that the actors became the residents of Laramie, instead of just portraying them.
Act Two, directed by Adrianna Vanos, was tasked with describing the murder as well as expressing that this tragedy happened to real people. It incorporated news reports as its main starting point, using audio from real-life reports, as well as using its actors to create a chaotic environment.
Featured in this act was a powerful speech from actor Katie Lawrence, detailing the passing of Shepard in hospital. Lawrence started the speech cold and detached, but broke down abruptly in the middle of it. It was a vicious emotional shock to the audience, as both the content and delivery of the speech were heartbreaking. Cast, crew and audience members were all crying.
“Even in character,” said Dylan Jackson, one of the actors, “they immediately felt it.”
Act Three, directed by Skylar Curtis, takes up the monumental task of bringing the emotional freefall audience members were put in to an end. Curtis said it was focused on the final impact of the case and “the final look back” — or, as she described it, that final look that you give something before you leave it for the last time.
Standing out in the third act was Jackson, who gave three powerful performances as killers and the victim’s father. Each had their own nuances that Jackson displayed not only with his voice but in his posture and movement. This was made even more impressive by the fact that Jackson had to learn some of those parts within the past week after an actor left the cast last minute.
Overall, the Bad Ideas Theatre Collective had everything it needed to make this play effective. It was a powerful play with brilliant actors and a creative space to immerse an audience in. Each element was able to make up for another’s missteps. It didn’t just entertain; it made the audience care.