Playwright Moises Kaufman distrusts theater the same way documentary filmmaker Michael Moore distrusts movies. For Kaufman, a traditional narrative play, with natural dialogue and a perfect box set is just not reality — or even close. Kaufman finds that form not only tired, and thus ineffective in dealing with the prickly subjects of hate crimes and homosexuality, but also somewhat irresponsible to important subjects. Such a play is too often a one-way ticket to escapism for audiences, and Kaufman would detest nothing more than to flee the reality of the murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in 1998. “The Laramie Project,” a provocative portrait of Laramie, Wisc. citizens reacting to the crime, strives for truth and theatrical innovation. Presented by the Yale Dramat and director Andy Sandberg ’05, the production struggles to latch onto either.
“The Laramie Project” treads confidently in the wake of Anna Deavere Smith’s fusion of journalism and theater, “Twilight: Los Angeles.” Smith’s show was a remarkable one-woman performance of excerpted interviews that she conducted with witnesses, victims and perpetrators of the L.A. race riots in 1992. Following Shepard’s brutal beating, Kaufman and a troupe of actor/writers from the Tectonic Theater Project in New York City visited Laramie on six different occasions to interview hundreds of community members. Instead of preserving their actual speech (as Smith did), the playmakers decided to stray slightly from the transcripts and rewrite the material — mostly as short monologues — to capture the essence of the community’s response and inch closer to the underlying truths.
Over the course of three short acts, an ensemble of eight actors portrays over 80 different individuals — including, in some scenes, the original cast members interviewing Laramie locals — in what is a kind of ethnographic study of Laramie.
But judging from the play’s “data,” there’s a good reason that Kaufman is an artist and not a social scientist. Of the 80 personalities that flicker across the stage, there are perhaps six, aside from the two murderers Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson (both nicely played by Abraham Koogler) that expressed ambivalence about Shepherd, and most are scattered and hidden in the second and third acts. Though “Laramie” wasn’t designed to enrage or inspire activism the way, for example, Larry Kramer’s ’57 “A Normal Heart” was, Kaufman probably didn’t aim to ease the audience into the complacency that seemed to settle in on the audience Wednesday night at the Dramat’s Experimental theater. By the end of the performance, the show gave reason to believe in the existence of overwhelming tolerance of homosexuality punctured only by the wrath of a “few random crazies.”
Individuals repeatedly warn, “We DO grow children like [Aaron and Russell] here,” and “Everyone needs to own this crime. We ARE like this.” Yet with nearly all of the characters at least paying lip service to acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle, it’s impossible to understand how the crime came to be — and how similar outbursts could be prevented in the future. Some float the idea that strict adherence to the Bible led to the killing, but Aaron and Russell don’t come across as the religious type.
Worse, the tone of the play becomes self-congratulatory by the end. A march in support of Shepherd by the people of Laramie causes one 55-year-old gay man to remark: “My first thought was, ‘Thank God I got to see this in my lifetime.’ My second thought was, ‘Thank you, Matt.'”
One-sided and sentimental as it is, the project is rich with characters, and the real-life tragedy is hugely compelling. “Laramie” is an important contribution to the theater, if not for its reportage or unusual story of creation than for its vast staging possibilities. The quick-dissolving monologues allow for fluid and graceful blocking, and a creative and powerful use of the rest of the ensemble behind the speaker.
But Sandberg lacks the vision to pull off such a complete production. Sandberg gets too caught up in the story to remember that his job is to utilize the possibilities that actors, movement and visuals — the stage — offer to advance the play’s message. Most of the time he limits his options by having the actors sit motionless in the background or exit off stage when they’re not speaking, and his few attempts at illustrative or contrapuntal blocking are awkward, unimaginative and poorly executed.
The greatest strength of the show lies in its ability to present the voices of Laramie virtually unmediated, but on this account, Sandberg fails again. When a police officer and a college boy speak of finding Shepard tied to a buck fence up in the hills, Sandberg cues melodramatic music — in direct opposition to Kaufman’s desire to remain objective. By instructing the audience how to feel, Sandberg deflates the power of the words, smoothing over lines that should be uncomfortable and inescapable.
The most effective and emotional moment in the production — when the ensemble sings “Amazing Grace” and offers unified, angelic resistance to Fred Phelps’ verbal attacks on homosexuals — is also the most heavy-handed, which speaks to the critical importance — and glaring absence — of innovative staging to this play.
Koogler, Derek Miller ’04, and Jana Sikdar ’06 lead the cast in achieving a mix of realistic speech patterns and theatricality. Although not all of the characters are well defined (each actor has to juggle about 10), many are, and some are informed with terrific subtlety.
As any production of “The Laramie Project” would, this version rides on the gravity inherent in its subject. Ultimately, however, Kaufman and his Tectonic group chose to use theater — however flawed — as their medium instead of making, say, “Bowling for Laramie,” for a reason. Sadly, Sandberg and his gang haven’t found it.