Lying in The Wake of “Laramie”

With a sparse 92-seat capacity, the intimate black box of UCI’s School of the Arts Studio Theater seems to mirror the very intimacy and closeness of the community that gives “The Laramie Project” its name.

The company that originally prepared the piece, Tectonic Theatre, endeavored to capture the state of the town following the murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998. In October of that year, the college student was found tied to a fence with serious head injuries, robbed of his wallet and shoes and was barely alive. He died within four days of being discovered, having lapsed into a coma by that time.

While the show circles around this event, it also focuses on the inhabitants of the town. Directed by faculty member Don Hill, UCI’s production features a cast of 14 who bring to life a whole town of varying ideas and perspectives. In essence, the show is about perspective. The play relives a number of interviews between Tectonic and those residents of Laramie who were involved or close to the hate crime that made the place infamous.

This production especially, begs many questions of its audience: What is the nature of hate crimes? How do we define what is random and what is prejudice? What can we forget? From our first entrance into the space, The Laramie Project makes us part of the project. There is no separation between the audience and performer, or between the two aisles of audience seating. The cast greets individual audience members before beginning the show.

Rather than making the show “inescapable” in nature, the approach instead creates an air of shared experience in tune with the outlook of the story itself. The set itself is minimalist, consisting of little more than some chairs and several risers. However, the power of location and scenery lives in the characters and their interactions.

“The Laramie Project” doesn’t preach, but rather observes and questions. The show itself is not unbiased, but an examination of bias; we’re allowed to see both the whirlwind of media hype, as well as the forceful re-examination of the events shaping a community’s personal history. At one moment, leaders of four local religious sects stand before the audience: Baptist, Mormon, Unitarian and Catholic.

Dressed in matching long sleeved shirts, the performers are so similar in experience, but so contrasting in voice and views. To see this contrast considered alongside the simple set makes the project so much more than a typical dramatic production. It becomes an experience of Laramie and what happened in Laramie.

The cast embraces the characters with gusto, though at times admitted a hesitance in confidence. The production allowed the text to live through them, still feeling the nuance of emotion but not quite achieving the optimal polish of an organic whole. Even so, with a run time of over two hours, the ensemble masterfully succeeds in captivating the audience with its pacing and expression. Their performances compliment each other to create the collective both of the theater company they portray on one level, and the community of interviewees on another. From limo driver to bartender to Shepard’s own father, every character is developed richly and individually.

For “The Laramie Project” to be performed now, 10 years after the incident, is itself a meaningful event. The developers of the project, have just recently revisited Laramie and are in the process of preparing a follow-up called “The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later.” The new project promises to develop our understanding of the town in terms of the changes that have or haven’t taken place since Matthew’s death. Just within the past week, on Oct. 28, “The Matthew Shepard Act” was signed into law to expand federal law in the area of hate-crime. However, the play addresses an audience that might think itself beyond crimes of difference, and challenges the proclamation of “Live and let live.” It offers something on a human level, beneath the layers of politics, faith and fear.

“The Laramie Project” runs Nov. 3 – 7, with a matinee on Saturday.