By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Though The Laramie Projectrecounts some scant details of his life and the awful facts of his death, Matthew Shepard himself is never depicted in the three-hour theatrical docudrama now onstage in its area premiere at Addison's WaterTower Theatre. That Shepard's absence is the point clearly serves as motivation for the reverent performances by the eight actors in director Terry Martin's strong ensemble. The company's tender, solemn presentation takes place on a stage starkly furnished with plain wooden chairs and few props. At the end, there is no curtain call for the cast. It wouldn't be appropriate. You don't applaud eulogies.
That's what The Laramie Projectreally is: tribute disguised as drama disguised as reportage. Moises Kaufman's Manhattan-based Tectonic Theater Project created the piece after a series of trips to Laramie, Wyoming, in the year and a half following the 1998 murder of Shepard, a 21-year-old gay college student. Kaufman and his troupe conducted 200 interviews in Laramie in an effort to amplify Shepard's death and to understand its effect on a town made famous by a hate crime. Excerpts from those interviews, as well as portions of court documents, are re-enacted verbatim onstage, each actor portraying many different people through tiny adjustments in voice or silhouette.
The result is meta-theater, which doesn't mean it's great theater. The gimmicky structure of The Laramie Project means that WaterTower's actors play the actors of the Tectonic Theater Project, who played the townspeople of Laramie. This layering of identities slows down the storytelling as actors constantly introduce each other by different names and job titles.
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Get past the confusion about who's saying what and some fine performances make this production worth seeing, particularly if you're new to this material (the film version continues in repeats on HBO). WaterTower's cast members, with only a couple of exceptions, let the truth of the Shepard tragedy, not their interpretations of the players in it, take center stage.
Best among the cast: the remarkably talented Brian J. Smith, star of last fall's A Clockwork Orange at Quad C Theatre and UTD; lovely and versatile Amanda Denton, playing male and female characters; Ian Leson, last seen in Kitchen Dog's Coriolanus, here playing, among others, Shepard's doctor and the investigating officer questioning his killers; and veteran actress Pam Dougherty, last onstage at WaterTower in Book of Days, so moving here in a scene playing both an interviewer and the unsympathetic minister she's questioning.
The show begins with Shepard's friends and acquaintances trying to describe him to the nosy outsiders from New York City. A classmate (Denton) remembers "nobody called him Matthew" until he was murdered and his name made headlines. "His nickname was Choo-Choo," she says. "He had an incredible, beaming smile."
The young cyclist (Denton again, as a teen-age boy) who discovered Shepard beaten and barely alive on the fence rail recalls mistaking the slim, slumped figure for a Halloween display. "I thought it was a scarecrow," he says.
Strange details emerge about the killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson (both played by Smith, who is riveting in these scenes). Henderson was a devout Mormon, an Eagle Scout. He and McKinney shelled out handfuls of quarters and dimes to buy a pitcher of beer the night they offered Shepard a ride home from a Laramie bar and then beat him to a bloody pulp.
There are glimpses of Shepard's father (Bill Jenkins, overacting by half) asking the judge to spare McKinney from death row, and a preacher (also Jenkins, doing too much grimacing and gesturing) yelling and waving "God hates fags" signs in sight of Shepard's funeral. We see the emergency room doctor (Smith) who treats wounds on Shepard and one of his attackers within a few hours of each other. Cops, professors, a lesbian rancher, a minister's wife, a grandmother, a Muslim woman, all step forward, Rashomon style, to piece together the Shepard saga and its aftermath.
WaterTower's cast elevates The Laramie Projectwith its graceful acting, but the "script" Kaufman and his group cobbled from their interviews suffers from its devotion to documentary style. Sometimes what's being said by these folks is not all that interesting. Some editing was in order. And there's too little attempt to go beyond the conversations to explore what attitudes might have lurked beneath the surface of life in Laramie that could explain what drove McKinney and Henderson to torture Shepard and leave him to die. We just hear what people say about the event, in the choppy, flat way that real people out West say things.
Great dramatic works such as Thornton Wilder's Our Townand John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath make art for the stage through finely crafted dialogue, memorable characters and dramatic conflicts. They ask and answer big questions about life, death and the human condition. Had it been written more in the form of a play, with some poetry to express its messages of love, hate, forgiveness and hope, The Laramie Project could have been so much more than a well-acted transcript.