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.
CONTINUED, AFTER THE JUMP...
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
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
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.
Recent theatre features…
Ethan Hawke Opens in ‘Clive’ Off Broadway: REVIEW
Martin Moran's 'All The Rage' Opens Off Broadway: REVIEW
Ben Rimalower Is Working Through His 'Patti Issues' At The Duplex: INTERVIEW
'Picnic' Starring Sebastian Stan Opens on Broadway: REVIEW
'The Other Place' Starring Laurie Metcalf Opens On Broadway: REVIEW
Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: julieta cervantes)