The Laramie Project by Moises Kaufman and members of Tectonic Theatre.
Directed by Chris Baldock. Assistant director Alexandra Pelvin. Lighting design. Joel Edmondson. Set and sound design. Chris Baldock. Operator. Thomas Hyslop. Mockingbird Theatre. Theatre 3. June 6 – 22. 2019
Reviewed by Peter Wilkins
“You need to do your best to say it right”, Laramie’s catholic minister (Joel Horwood) says to the members of Tectonic Theatre, who are preparing to write a play about the murder of gay university student, Matthew Shepard, in 1998.
And Mockingbird Theatre have done their best with an outstanding production of Moises Kaufman and Tectonic Theatre’s profoundly affecting performance of verbatim theatre’s The Laramie Project. If Baldock’s Melbourne production at Chapel off Chapel was as superbly staged as the Canberra production and the cast as brilliant as the ones in Baldock’s revival at Theatre 3, then it comes as no surprise that the production won the prestigious Victorian Green Room Award for Best Independent Production/Director.
The Laramie Project, as well as being a thoroughly authentic example of Verbatim Theatre, created from over 200 interviews, is also a magnificent piece of storytelling- intriguing, shocking, moving, revealing, thought-provoking and yet ultimately cathartic. For the people of Laramie the conviction of the perpetrators, Aaron McKinney and Russel Henderson, the crime becomes a clarion call for hope, hope that the death was not in vain, hope that hate crime will be exposed and legislated against, hope that something positive will come from the dark shadow cast across the town of Laramie in Wyoming. The Laramie Project, with all its horrific accounting of the brutal beating and eventual death of Matthew Shepard, left to die, tied to a fence for eighteen hours, is about hope.
Baldock has wisely opted for a simple, functional and imaginative design of eight beige wooden chairs and wooden fencing rails against Theatre 3’s back wall to represent the site of Matthew Shephard’s beating. The eight members of the cast play out the members of the Tectonic Theatre and the townsfolk of Laramie, interchanging roles deftly and with totally convincing portrayals of the people caught up in this sensational depiction of a gay hate crime.
What is most startling is the range of attitudes, beliefs and opinions encapsulated within Tectonic’s oral investigation. Moises Kaufman and the company have carefully structured the play to introduce each character to avoid confusion and the cast skilfully and credibly switch roles. Audiences are constantly challenged not to determine guilt or innocence but to confront their own humanity in a work that is as much about the town and the people who live in it as it is about the crime. Several times the townsfolk affirm that this is a town where people live and let live, and where gay members of the community are accepted.
Scenes are depicted by moving the chairs into different positions to suggest different groupings or maintain the fluidity and impact of the work. Characters may at times stand on the chairs when the judge (Michael Cooper) delivers his verdict or the minister (Chris Baldock) delivers his sermon. At other times the journalist (Andrea Close) will move into a spot to deliver a monologue. In an instance of varying the interactions and relationships, policewoman Reggie (Karen Vickery) and her mother (Liz St. Clair Long) discuss the fear of AIDS from contact with Shephard’s blood. At times one actor may play two roles simultaneously, for example when St. Clair Long plays an interviewing member of Tectonic Theatre and the Anglican minister. Hayden Splitt effectively gives an honest interpretation of both McKinney and Henderson in captivity. As a native of Laramie, born and bred in Wyoming, Meaghan Stewart captures the essential persona of the country girl, caught up in the effect of the crime upon her hometown and the media’s unrelenting response.
Baldock directs with enormous sensitivity, not only for the plight of the people of the town, the family of the two lads and Matt Shepard and his family, but also for the audience, allowing us to take in the horrendous nature of gay hate and its consequences and become totally immersed in the moral ethics and reflect on our responses to Tectonic Theatre’s depiction. The play is long but utterly absorbing in the hands of director Baldock and his cast. The sound design lends an ominous foreboding in the use of piano and oboe and the lighting is non-intrusive and effective. The actors, when on chairs in a spot, would have been more effective if they could find their spot to light the face. This only happened occasionally.
On Saturday 22nd June, Mockingbird Theatre will present The Laramie Project at 2 p.m. at Theatre 3 and then follow it with its sequel The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. At 7.30 p.m. These are the two final performances of an unmissable production.