UW's "The Laramie Project" Struggles to Tell A Difficult Story

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The nation was shocked by the death of Matthew Shepard in 1998. The victim of a hate crime, the young gay college student was beaten, tortured, tied to a fence, and left to die in Laramie, Wyoming. Not long afterwards, Moises Kaufman and members of the New York based Tectonic Theater Project deployed themselves to conduct hundreds of interviews with townspeople, students and professors at the University of Wyoming, where Shepard had been a student, members of law enforcement, representatives of the clergy, and the medical personnel who treated him in his final days. The play uses pieces of these interviews verbatim, to create a documentary style examination of the circumstances that led to this crime, and its aftermath.

The result is a devised piece of theater called The Laramie Project, onstage through April 29th in the Hemsley Theatre in UW-Madison’s Theater Department. The production, directed by visiting professor Drew Sutherland features a strong student cast, kinetic staging, and the use of film and other projections to investigate the infamous crime from many disparate viewpoints. But although it’s essential that this horrific murder be examined and remembered, this production does little to bring nuance or new insight to the story.

Since the show is basically a rapid fire group of interviews, the staging is very fluid, with scenes bleeding into one another. The actors morph from one character to the next at lightning speed, with the simple addition of a costume piece. For this “blank canvas,” scenic director John Drescher kept the physical set minimal; two sections of “buck and rail” fence — the kind that Shepard was lashed to —typically used in Wyoming and other places where the ground is too hard to drive fenceposts in. Actors entering from each end of the long, narrow stage arranged and rearranged two sections of this fencing to create courtrooms, barrooms, a trailer park and many other settings. With audiences seated on either side of the “alley” stage, actors constantly turned from side to side to be seen. While the convention was cool, it was also somewhat monotonous. There are only so many configurations for the fences and actors in the small, small space, and I believe the nine-member cast found them all.

The other innovative set convention was the use of film, projected onto two large panels that functioned as the enormous doors to the playing space. Some of it was effective — projecting scenes from downtown Laramie, the wide open landscape, and even historic news footage of the event. Some of it was intrusive and unnecessary. For instance, there was nothing about the video of a man riding a bike that added to the actor’s description of going for a long bike ride away from town when he found Shepard’s body. Using videos of several members of the cast was also puzzling, when they could easily have delivered their lines live. The sound design, by Eann Potter was persistent and aggressive, often obscuring the actors’ words and muddying the scenes.

The ensemble of nine students, who played more than 60 roles over the course of the production, were energetic and on point, making all their entrances and exits swiftly and leaving no gaps between vignettes. Jamie Herb, Ruan Scheffler, and Patrick Collins were particularly engaging in a variety of roles. But while the cast generally made small choices to differentiate their characters, through physicality or accent, very few were specific enough to convey separate, complicated people. As a result, it was hard to see any shades of gray unearthed through all these character studies; each was drawn as either good or bad, which lessens the drama of the piece considerably.

The script spends some time remarking on the national media’s presence in Laramie, and how disorienting that was for locals, but the production went further, vilifying these reporters from the outside. This is ironic, since Kaufman and his troupe were similarly intrusive and voyeuristic in creating the play. And while I’m personally not a fan of any author inserting himself/herself into the narrative, the final image of the production, with the theater troupe dressed as angels surrounding Matthew Shepard, was especially disturbing. The writers and actors who interviewed the people of Laramie are not, and should not, be the heroes of this story. That’s a role I would give to Shepard’s father, who graciously did not demand the death penalty for one of the young men who tortured and killed his son out of prejudice, hatred, and fear.