Monday, June 11, 2018

A Heartbreaking Recollection: 20 Years After Matthew Shepard's Murder, 'The Laramie Project' Remains a Harrowing Look at Homophobic Hate -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Laramie Project
by Moisés Kaufman and
members of the Tectonic Theater Project
directed by Derek Bertelsen
Aston Rep Theatre Company
at the Raven Theatre Complex, Chicago
Thru July 8

Note: The first few paragraphs of this review cite historical facts that are central to the play The Laramie Project, first staged in early 2000 and now being produced in Chicago by Aston Rep. I believe that most of an age old enough to remember the 1998 incident will attend with at least a vague recollection, and the play is written with this presumption inherent. So this isn't really a SPOILER ALERT, but I felt I should provide the option to remain uninitiated. Know that I recommend the play, particularly to those unfamiliar with the horrific episode. 

On the evening of October 6, 1998, a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student named Matthew Shepard met Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie, home to the college.

The two men decided to give Shepard--who was gay and of slight build--a ride home. They then drove him to an isolated rural area, where they pistol-whipped him, fracturing his skull, and further tortured him. Having also robbed Shepard, the men tied him to a fence and left him to die.

Photo credit on all: Emily Schwartz
Shepard was found by happenstance 18 hours later, alive but comatose and in grave condition. He would die a few days later.

McKinney and Henderson were subsequently convicted and remain imprisoned.

The incident received widespread news coverage, initially as Shepard clung to life, and about a year later during McKinney's trial. (Henderson had plead guilty.)

Matthew Shepard's brutal murder was--and remains--seen as one of the most horrific hate crimes perpetuated against homosexuals in the U.S.

It's hard for me to imagine anything more heinous being done to a human being by others of the human race.

Starting rather soon after Shepard death, Moisés Kaufman and other members of the NYC-based Tectonic Theater Project began traveling to Laramie to conduct interviews with local authorities, townsfolk, students, professors and others.

More than 200 interviews were conducted across 6 visits, and with Kaufman as the principal writer, dramatizations of the interviews and several of the provided accounts were turned into The Laramie Project.

While I had never before seen it onstage, in 2002 HBO commissioned a film and I did watch that at some point several years ago.

Specific recollections were vague, but I was certainly familiar with the basic facts before attending Aston Rep's opening night on Saturday.

Under the direction of Derek Bertelsen, 12 actors and actresses--all quite good--portray over 60 individuals, including members of the Tectonic Theater Project and those they interviewed.

Among others, Rob Frankel notably depicts Shepard's father, Dennis, and University of Wyoming President Philip Dubois.

Matthew Harris plays Kaufman, as well as a UW theater student.

Alexandra Bennett takes on the head of the university's theater department, and as CEO of the hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado where Shepard was treated, provides the press with updates on his condition. (In real-time, such updates happened before Tectonic came to Laramie.)

Demonstrably strong work is also done by Liz Cloud, Erin O'Brien, Ray Kasper and Sara Pavlak McGuire, and Dana Anderson, Roberto Jay, Amy Kasper, Peter Surma and Chelsea Turner are all quite meriting of praise.

A variety of accents and inflections are well handled, and many performers at times enact individuals of the opposite sex, without it ever seeming a big deal.

The crime's perpetrators, Henderson and McKinney are embodied, but Shepard himself never is.

While what happened to him, and perhaps why, is obviously referenced in a number of the respondent monologues, the scenario--and his sense of fear, horror, pain, etc.--preceding and through the attack is never explicitly depicted.

I'll leave this for you to encounter with more specificity--whether within the play or in reading about the actual events--but while it seems abundantly clear to me that the barbarism wrought upon Matthew Shepard was completely unwarranted, there was an allegation that he had propositioned one of his attackers.

Even if he had, it obviously wouldn't merit having his head bashed in and left dying on a fence, but some of the individuals depicted in The Laramie Project say things that should make any humane person cringe, no matter one's personal feelings about homosexuality, gay rights or the LBGTQ community.

Artfully, Kaufman and his colleagues opted to portray a wide range of responses they encountered in Laramie, reflecting hate, hope, love--all to varying degrees--and much else.

Those onstage within the Raven Theatre complex handle the diverse characterizations well, and there are also a few poignant musical numbers played live.

The truth behind The Laramie Project has much to do with why it remains so powerful, and 20 years after Matthew Shepard's murder, it is a good choice by Aston Rep, whose work I have come to consistently enjoy over the past few years.

I wholeheartedly recommend this play to almost anyone, as--especially for under $13 (+ fees) through HotTix, Goldstar or TodayTix--this well-crafted production is far more worthwhile than a mediocre movie.

That said, strictly from a theatrical standpoint, in 2018, I wasn't quite blown away.

Structured as it is to denote a variety of interviewees discussing an incident of which the sad details were relatively well-known to me--and as stated at top, presumably many presently in attendance--I found that The Laramie Project isn't as dramatically powerful as it is historically important.

I imagine when first staged less than 16 months after Shepard was killed, or to those young enough to find what was done to him almost literally inconceivable, the 2-act, 2-1/2 hour play would be extremely gripping.

Having seen the film, albeit long ago, and more recently having read Matthew Shepard's Wikipedia entry, perhaps made me note a relative lack of dramatic tension, and wish that the focus was a bit less on Tectonic's interviews with locals and more on the young victim himself.

And while, thanks in part to the stellar performances, The Laramie Project never dragged, I did sense that it could be tighter.

Apologies for not knowing the exact attribution, but someone at the opening/press night performance mentioned that the work has been heralded as one of the most important pieces of theater of the 20th century (or some similar acclimation).

I won't argue with this at all, but don't think I'd concur with it being dubbed one of the "Best Plays."

Still, in documenting the gruesome, spiteful murder of Matthew Shepard--presumably because he was a young gay man--it exposes the worst of mankind in ways that remain sadly relevant today.

Yet it also bespeaks tolerance, love and hope, which--being Pride Month or not--is why you should see it, even if you already know the abominable facts.

As a small side note, on Saturday night, only about 15 minutes into the performance, one of the lights above the stage burst, sending sparks flying, with smoke clearly apparent. Director Derek Bertelsen instantly halted the show, the auditorium was cleared and the Chicago Fire Department was called. Fortunately, any real danger was quickly averted and/or quelled, but kudos to Bertelsen, Aston Rep artistic director Robert Tobin, the Raven Theatre Complex staff and the CFD for deftly handling the frightful situation. And to the actors for smoothly stepping back into a rather serious play after this shocking occurrence and a 20-minute delay.


Ken said...

Unfortunately, each generation records a new low of human depravity.

Seth Arkin said...

Yes, sadly. Medgar Evers was murdered 55 years ago today. Also out of pure hate.

Ken said...

As Kurt would say..."so it goes."