April 27, 2022

Theatre Intime Offers Poignant Staging of “The Laramie Project”; Docudrama Explores Matthew Shepard’s Murder — and Theater Itself

“THE LARAMIE PROJECT”: Theatre Intime has staged “The Laramie Project,” presented April 15-24 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Directed by Ethan Luk, the play explores the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, as well as interviewees’ reactions to the idea of being depicted in a docudrama. Above, from left, are cast members Luc Maurer, Alexis Maze, Sabina Jafri, Rilla McKeegan, Ay Marsh, Arthur Yan, and Matthew Shih. (Photo by Rowen Gesue)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In October 1998 Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was beaten and left to die near Laramie. Rescuers took him to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colo., where he died of his injuries six days later.

Writing about Shepard’s attackers, a history.com entry notes, “To avoid a death sentence, Russell Henderson pleaded guilty to kidnapping and murder in April 1999 and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Later that year, Aaron McKinney attempted to use a “gay panic” defense at his own trial, claiming that Shepard’s advances disgusted him.” Both Henderson and McKinney are serving life sentences.

The history.com article adds, “Matthew Shepard’s death sparked national outrage and renewed calls for extending hate crime laws to cover violence based on a person’s sexual orientation.”

In 2000 the New York City-based Tectonic Theater Project presented The Laramie Project — first at Denver’s Ricketson Theatre, then off-Broadway at the Union Square Theatre. Two years later the play was presented in Laramie.

Written by Moisés Kaufman in collaboration with members of the theater company, the docudrama explores the events and viewpoints surrounding Shepard’s death. We learn that Tectonic members arrived in Laramie in November 1998, a month after the event. Members of the theater company interviewed Laramie residents, and all of the dialogue is derived from those conversations, as well as Tectonic members’ journal entries. Published news reports also are excerpted.

Princeton University’s Theatre Intime has presented The Laramie Project. In a program note, director Ethan Luk admits to having had doubts about the play’s relevance: “How does The Laramie Project speak to an audience more than 20 years after its premiere?” For the director, an answer can be found in events such as Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and the Brooklyn subway shooting: “Violence and injustice, both in explicit and implicit forms, still run rampant … perhaps that is why we find ourselves in front of the mirror time after time.”

It is worthwhile to give audiences an opportunity to observe The Laramie Project as a foremost example of a genre that currently is prominent. In recent years there has been a resurgence of documentary theater — in particular, verbatim theater. Examples include McCarter’s 2020 online reading of Execution of Justice and Passage Theatre’s in-person The OK Trenton Project. A revival of The Laramie Project is in keeping with this trend.

Luk writes that this production takes place in an “empty rehearsal studio.” On either side of the stage is a gallery of
photographs. Luk explains that these are a “collage of pictures featuring our cast’s personal memories and my own visual research for the production.” On one side, underneath the photos, is a guitar which one of the cast members picks up and plays.

As Luk observes, “This play is not only a document of Matthew Shepard and the town of Laramie, Wyoming, but also a document of Moisés Kaufman’s company, Tectonic Theater Project.” That The Laramie Project is as much about theater as it is about Shepard is made clear throughout the play. University student Zubaida Ula is incredulous at the idea of Laramie’s residents, including her, being portrayed onstage by the New York-based company; she remarks. “That’s so weird.”

One of the first interviewees portrayed is Jedadiah Schultz, a theater student at the University of Wyoming. Schultz recounts that he received a standing ovation at a high school theater competition, for performing a scene from Angels in America — a textual choice to which Schultz’s parents strongly objected.

Moments in the early scenes are deceptively — ominously — placid, as interviewees chat about subjects ranging from
railroads to the bartending profession. This is in stark contrast to the harrowing climax of the act, in which we see the discovery of the critically injured Shepard, who is represented onstage only by white sheets.

Disparate interviewees — Aaron Kreifels, who found Shepard; Reggie Fluty, the policewoman who responded to the scene; and Dr. Cantway, the emergency room doctor who first attempted to treat Shepard — recount the events of that night. We are forced to reflect on the fact that all of the commentary, before and after this moment, is connected with the person signified by the sheets.

Luk and lighting designer Rhim Andemichael make an astute decision: the spotlights are turned off, and the only source of illumination is flashlights held by the cast. Sound designer Eliyana Abraham provides introspective music, which includes some poignant choral writing.

Another eerie moment concerns the media firestorm surrounding the attack on Shepard. A news report is excerpted; while the recording plays, others are added, one after the other, until cacophony ensues. As this happens, actors move in a frantic circle.

The second act recounts the days Shepard lay in Poudre Valley Hospital, as well as the vigils held for him, and ends with his death. The third act depicts his funeral — which was picketed by Westboro Baptist Church’s homophobic Rev. Fred Phelps and his followers — and the sentencing of Henderson and McKinney.

Actors occasionally face away from the audience. At times — for this writer, at least — this results in some lines being difficult to hear. There needs to be consistent attention to projection, particularly if actors are masked (which often is the case in this production).

That said, there are some memorable performances. Every actor portrays many characters, which obviously requires great versatility. Theatre Intime’s cast admirably rises to this task.

Ay Marsh is outstanding, portraying a range of interviewees that includes Henderson, Rev. Phelps, and Shepard’s father, Dennis. Other notable performances include those of Luc Maurer (driver Doc O’Connor, McKinney, and Kreifels); Arthur Yan (Schultz and Dr. Cantway); Rilla McKeegan (Rulon Stacey, CEO of Poudre Valley Hospital, and the spokesperson for Shepard’s family); Sabina Jafri (Ula); and Matthew Shih (Father Roger Schmit, a Catholic priest who holds a vigil for Shepard).

Father Schmit delivers one of the final lines of dialogue: “I will trust that if you write a play of this, that you say it right.” Beside the explicit consideration of homophobia, intolerance, justice, and contrasting faith-based viewpoints, a key theme of The Laramie Project is authenticity — particularly theatrical authenticity.

At the back of the stage, set designer Kat McLaughlin places thin, door-sized props covered in a substance that resembles aluminum foil. This is in keeping with the idea that “we find ourselves in front of the mirror,” Although these “mirrors” create reflections, they are conspicuously blurry and distorted; this underlines the point that retellings of events often are distorted, imperfect reflections, because both sources and interpreters bring biases and preconceptions.

The Laramie Project itself may be an imperfect reflection of events. But it captures a wide diversity of speakers and viewpoints, and the audience is left with a vivid picture of Laramie before and after October 1998. We are confronted with the attitudes that led to the attack on Shepard, as well as the compassion that led others to hold vigils. Theatre Intime’s production, guided by Luk’s thoughtful direction, enhances the power of this docudrama’s world.

For information about Theatre Intime’s upcoming productions call (609) 258-5155 or visit theatreintime.org.