“There are moments in history when an event occurs, and the event is of such power that it operates as a lightning rod. It brings to the surface all the ideas, the beliefs, and the philosophies that are permeating people's lives. I feel that the murder of Matthew Shepard was an event of that nature. Every year, more than 20 anti-gay homicides are reported; that means there are at least two or three times that many that are not reported. But for some reason, this one resonated. This one was a moment where we as a culture said, "Wait a minute. What's going on?"
Out of Kaufman’s feeling following the October 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard grew a play which would be called “The Laramie Project.”
Laramie wasn’t a special town and Shepard wasn’t a special kid but, as one of the characters in the play observes, Laramie became “a noun, a definition for people across the nation. Like Waco.”
Kaufman and a crew of people from the Tectonic Theatre Project in New York made six trips to Wyoming to conducted more than 200 interviews with the citizens of Laramie, and to produce a work which would explore how the whole world was feeling and thinking and talking, not only about homosexuality, but also about class and education and violence.
From the interviews, Kaufman, along with co-writers Leigh Fondakowski, Stephen Belber, Greg Pierotti, and Stephen Waugh, developed a play which would ultimately be produced off Broadway and, in 2002, made into a movie. “Laramie Project” has also been performed by professional theatre companies, community theatre companies and high schools across the country.
I have seen the show several times, including in its original format, as performed by the members of the Tectonic Theatre Project who conducted the interviews. It’s safe to say that the production which opened this week, presented by the U.C. Davis Department of Theatre and Dance at the Mondavi Studio Theatre, under the direction of Peter Lichtenfels, is unlike any production I have seen.
For starters, each performance is preceded by a panel discussion on a specific topic. The night I attended, the topic was on law enforcement and hate crimes. Davis Police Officer Kierith Briesnick pointed out that people don’t think hate crimes happen in Davis, but she and Sheriff Ed Prieto assured the audience that they do. Briesnick mentioned the suicide of a young student recently, who had suffered depression as a result of taunts regarding his sexual orientation.
The production itself moves with the snap and precision of a marching band. Lichtenfels has done some interesting and innovative stage movements which I found very distracting, but grew accustomed to.
Lichtenfels also used a member of the panel discussion as a sort of narrator, sitting at a side table, reading from the script. The action on stage was so snappy and so precise that the addition of a non-professional who has not rehearsed with the cast was unfortunate. This particular reader stumbled over lines, was unsure of the right inflection, and slowed the action significantly.
In places the direction is distracting--such as an interview with two women, situated on opposite sides of the stage, with the reporter running back and forth between them for each question.
In other places, the visual is perfect, such as using two chairs, painted orange, to represent the defendants, Henderson and McKinney, who had appeared in court wearing orange prison garb. Likewise the bleakness of Shepard’s funeral is nicely represented by the crowd with open umbrellas.
Lichtenfels makes maximum use of the Studio Theatre, setting his action not only on the stage floor, but on the balcony above the stage, on the steps of the audience, and outside the wall of windows across from the audience.
There were overhead projections, which were extremely distracting for people sitting close to the stage. They may have been able to be integrated into the action if one were sitting higher up in the auditorium. When Dennis Shepard is reading his message to Aaron McKinney, text was scrolling on the screen, which was both distracting from the action, and made one unable to concentrate on either.
However, particularly effective was the appearance of the homophobic minister, Fred Phelps (Tom McCauley), blasting hate messages with a bullhorn from outside the theatre, while the action continued inside the theatre. (Joggers and people out for a stroll around Mondavi may have been surprised to find themselves part of the action of the play!)
It would be difficult to single out any one performer as outstanding. To do so would do a disservice to the entire cast, each of whom was outstanding. Chris Allison, Justin Cary, Rachel Cunningham, Rachael Devlin, Andrea Guidry, R. Andrew Hess, Geneva Lai, Tom McCauley, Shefali Nagrani, David Orzechowicz, Katie Rubin, Sam Tanng, and Tony Whittaker each played several roles, stepping in and out of character seamlessly.
“The Laramie Project” does not reach any conclusions or preach any message. It simply, and eloquently, gives a picture of how a violent and tragic event affected a small town, how the townspeople reacted, and how some opinions were changed. The effect is powerful, and it is hoped that the audience will do as Napa Valley College Trainer, Greg Miraglia suggested – take the story to heart and go back into the world determined to make a small difference, to work to bring acceptance and, in time, respect to all segments of society. It is a play that should be seen by every junior high and high school student--and their parents.