What does it take for an event to become myth, a man to become a saint? How are we affected by stories, and how do we change the stories we touch?
These questions are raised by The Laramie Project, which opened Tuesday in the UM Masquer Theatre. The play, born of interviews conducted by New York’s Tectonic Theatre Company, assembles a gaggle of Wyoming townspeople to voice the circumstances surrounding Matthew Shepard’s death. This populist jigsaw technique has become commonplace as a way to get certain things on stage quickly, without bothering much over the difficult task of writing drama.
Tectonic members traveled several times to Laramie after the horrendous event in order to absorb the reality of the experience. They collected and condensed their interviews, shaped them and linked them, reenacted them and gave birth to a play. This is a style of drama that depends on fine editing to bring it together, a style that relies on the notion that nothing is more powerful than what people actually say, that people will always betray the truth of themselves even without intending to.
The characters of the play share the names of the Tectonic members and were originally played by the Tectonic members, who announce straightaway that they in turn are playing members of the community so rattled and shaken by Shepard’s death. In the UM production, directed by Jillian Campana, the actors each have several roles. In order to distinguish their parts, the actors pull props and bits of costume from two trunks on stage. Often they don’t need them, though, as the company is deft enough with Campana’s vision to make each part stand out.
It seems everyone comes to life here: the investigating sergeant, the responding cop, the bartender, the perpetrators, the doctor, a taxi driver, the hate-spewing minister and the sympathetic clergy, Matthew’s best friends—everyone is here except for Matthew, and his absence is the wound that cannot close, the hollow grief that has determined this whole project.
And each person takes the stage in turn to tell his or her side, talking directly to the audience while the rest of the company members sit or stand frozen, waiting for their chance. So we—the audience, the rest of the world—are involved, too, in collusion with a world in which such an atrocity can occur. Of course atrocity is not new to the human race, but what touched people about Shepard was the inequity of it, the sheer brute cruelty, the comment on homosexuality and the crucifixion.
As hate crimes go, Shepard’s beating and death are at the top of the list, and he quickly became an icon of the human rights movement. One of the interesting things that emerges from The Laramie Project is the reminder that Shepard was a regular man, sometimes lazy or foolish or reckless, sometimes selfish. People who knew him speak their truth of Matthew, and he becomes even more powerful as a symbol when we realize that he’s neither more nor less than one of us.
The Laramie Project is actually not about Shepard, not even about Laramie. It is about the Tectonic Theatre Company, and it is about technique. The play uses a series of filters to record an event and allows us the chance to consider how the act of telling and retelling shapes history. But the filters also provide a sanitary distance, and Campana’s production keeps things way too clean. People don’t bump up against each other, opinions revealed discretely never clash. When one actor speaks, we’re distracted by nothing else, and the Babel of wagging tongues that should define this play is lost.
The cast does not seem to be challenged here, never stretching beyond acting-class exercise. Although their lines convey power and passion, the actors come across as a bit too studiously controlled. It seems like they could have let go, but didn’t want to disrupt the production. Only a few moments here and there really burst open, and these have strength in naturalness, the actors letting down their guard: Paige Williams as the police officer celebrates her health, Becky Wilson as a Muslim woman gets mad, Kate Britton explains how everyone in Laramie is in everyone’s business, Kate Hoffower muses about her daughter.
The production, which uses a mostly bare stage and three spooky wind chimes suspended from above, suffers from a curious absence of impact, perhaps because so many filters push us further and further from the subject, creating a gap between audience and stage. I think the point of The Laramie Project is to remind us that the act of talking is in itself a political act, an act which has power and significance, and that we must continue to talk about Matthew Shepard, about such subjects as human rights. But the manner in which this play came into being detracts from the point. Why focus so much on the theatre company, forcing us to pay attention to Tectonic’s efforts? Are we meant to thank the company for its gift? When The Laramie Project ends, we don’t feel uncomfortable, we just feel tutored. Instead of concentrating on the power in the events, we concentrate on the way the Tectonic Theatre Company took hold of those events, and its propriety seems unbecoming.
The Laramie Project runs April 29–May 3 and May 6–10 at 7:30 PM in the UM Masquer Theater. Tickets are $6. Call 243-4581. The play contains adult language and content.