Tectonic Theatre Project Presents 'The Laramie Project Cycle' At BAM: REVIEW
BY NAVEEN KUMAR
Just months after the fifteenth anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death, the Tectonic Theatre Project presents both plays of The Laramie Project Cycle at Brooklyn Academy of Music, performing in repertory at the Harvey Theater through February 24th.
These extraordinary productions, helmed by Tectonic’s resident director Moisés Kaufman (The Heiress), are proof of The Laramie Project’s lasting ingenuity. Then, as now, this is provocative, innovative, and wrenching theatre—and its call to arms for social justice is as urgent as ever.
In the fall of 1998, just one month after Shepard’s death, members of the theatre company travelled to Laramie, Wyoming to interview its citizens about their experience with one the country’s most notorious hate crimes and its explosive aftermath—including the ensuing media frenzy, investigation and trail of Shepard’s murderers, and how all of this affected the small western town.
Beautifully assembled using interview transcripts, company member journal entries, and other published accounts, the result is a searing and powerful play that offers rare insight into the emotional lives of those immediately affected by a tragedy that quickly escalated to the national level. The company conceived a second play by the same process in 2008, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, to follow up on developments in the community.
This momentous New York production of both plays reunites most of the Tectonic company members who traveled to Laramie and conceived the original project, which has since been adapted into an HBO film and seen thousands of productions around the country.
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The expert ensemble of eight performs dozens of different characters with ease and precision, often using one indicative article of costume—like a jacket or pair of glasses—to switch between finely drawn characterizations. Original company members also play themselves, relaying observations they made in Laramie fifteen years ago.
Simple, compelling visual design and fluid direction for both productions are characteristic of Tectonic’s style and practice of staying focused on voices and ideas without unnecessary distraction.
The more viscerally emotional of the two, Part One of The Laramie Project Cycle is also the more successfully constructed drama. The play not only has a clear story to tell—that of the murder and its immediate aftermath—but its voices speak with the urgency and emotional intensity that follows hot on the heels of national tragedy.
Mostly addressing the audience directly, company members and characters tell their personal stories—from Matthew’s friends and University teachers, to the teenage boy who found him tied up to a fence, the policewoman first on the scene, and the spokesman and CEO of the Colorado hospital where Shepard died after spending several nationally publicized days on life-support.
The immediate outpouring of sentiment and national attention had necessarily died down when the company returned to Laramie ten years later, which was precisely their reason for creating a follow-up project. While the second play indeed feels like a vitally important companion piece, it’s not quite as solidly constructed a work of drama.
Developments they discover—like the slow road to political change, and a lingering theory promoted by an episode of 20/20 that Shepard’s murder was a robbery gone awry and not in fact a hate crime—are undoubtedly key pieces of the story to understand. However, without the clear framework of a story, the insights feel more piecemeal.
Part Two of the cycle also includes chilling prison interviews with both of Shepard’s murderers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, as well as inspirational words from Judy Shepard, whose political activism paved the way for the Hate Crimes Preventions Act bearing her son’s name, which Obama signed into law in 2009.
Our national imagination has a natural tendency to forget the distinct, immediate heat of galvanizing tragedies so vividly captured in The Laramie Project. This one is worth a reminder.
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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: julieta cervantes)