Sunday, October 28, 2018

Review - The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later - Uprising Theatre - A Ten Year Old Play That Feels Like Someone Wrote It Yesterday - 5 Stars

Uprising Theatre Company’s production of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later is a real mindf**k.  (In a good way.)

I know I saw it ten years ago when it first debuted in an international rollout, with our own Guthrie Theater as the Minneapolis part of a video connection to other readings around the country and the globe.  But, honestly, it feels like someone wrote it yesterday.  Because these days, there seem to be more and more people choosing to live in their own reality, regardless of evidence and facts.  And apparently the good people of Laramie were trendsetters in that regard, ten years ahead of the rest of the country - distrusting law enforcement, the courts, and the testimony of the people actually involved in the events.  It doesn’t take much to rewrite history.  You just have to be stubborn.

“Of course I’m keeping Matt alive by doing this.  That’s the point.  That is exactly the point.”

Ten years after their first visits to Laramie, the artists of the Tectonic Theater Project returned to Wyoming, revisiting the sites and people who were central to the original version of The Laramie Project.  Once again, an ensemble of seven actors (Juliette Aaslestad, Baku Campbell, Bruce Manning, Seth Matz, Michael Novak, Jessica Thompson Passaro, and Tia Tanzer) portray a myriad of different roles to create the world of Laramie, Wyoming, and the people impacted by the murder of Matthew Shepard back in 1998.  Some people had moved away, but nobody had moved on.

“In some ways it’s easier to say, ‘Yes, we have a drug problem in Laramie.’  It’s something you can fix.”

The first act recounts the bewilderment of the theater company artists as they were faced with the determination of the town to put the hate crime label behind them.  They chose to do so by deciding the murder of Matthew Shepard had nothing to do with his being gay.  It was just a robbery or drug deal gone bad.  This flew in the face of the investigation by police, the court cases that followed the arrests, and the testimony of the killers themselves.  But a misleading story on the TV newsmagazine 20/20 provided just enough running room for a rumor to take root in the community and grow.  Even after a PBS show rebutted the 20/20 story point by point, the revisionist history continued to flourish (“who watches PBS?”).  Things people heard from their friends which reinforced a storyline they’d prefer to believe were taken as fact, in place of the actual facts of the case.  Anyone telling them something they didn’t want to hear was just pushing some kind of political agenda.  If certain people or facts are inconvenient, you simply try to erase them from the narrative.

Sound familiar?

“They took the fence down?”
“The pieces were incorporated into other fences, so no one knows where the original pieces are.”

The first act kind of blew my mind, hearing it now in the context of the current political climate in America.  I’m sure it felt similarly telling to the actors and their directing team (Sarah Catcher and Ashley Hovell, assisted by Emily England).  The second act is spent un-rewriting history by talking with the people most directly involved with the murder, who the Tectonic Theater artists hadn’t been able to talk with before.  They start by meeting with the two killers in prison, and end by spending time with Matthew’s mother Judy, and his friend Romaine Patterson, both now speakers and activists, meeting with schools and other groups around the country to tell Matthew’s story and work to change society and reduce hate crimes in the future.

“I’m a lot angrier now than I was then, because it’s still happening.”

There’s a lot of frustration (“Ten years of change, but no progress”) but also a lot of hope.  There’s an antigay marriage amendment in the Wyoming legislature that gets shut down - by the conservative Republican leadership (?!).  Even from the time of interviewing Judy Shepard to the time the play’s script was finalized, things were changing.  The script was able to tell the audience that the hate crimes legislation so often blocked in Congress was finally passed and then signed into law by President Obama (remember Obama? sigh…). The script could also report the good news that a year after that, the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy barring LGBTQ people from serving openly in the military was repealed.  And little did they know it at the time, but the Defense of Marriage Act referenced in the script also finally fell, thanks to the Supreme Court (remember when the Supreme Court had a more progressive majority? sigh…)

“There is a desire for communities to control their own stories.”

The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later is a much more vibrant and immediate document than I expected it to be.  It’s a chilling example of willful denial by a whole society, and how and why that kind of thing can happen.  Nobody here (apart from the killers) is evil.  They’re just human.  Humans get scared.  Humans are weak.  The human mind is susceptible to all kinds of suggestions, under the right kind of pressure.  It’s also an example of the power of storytelling, and how it can be used for good.

“In the end, how will this story finally be written?”

The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later isn’t dependent on you seeing The Laramie Project first, or at all.  It stands on its own as a piece of theater.  But the two productions do work well together, building on and echoing off of one another.  Whether you can see just one or both, I’d urge you to see as much of Uprising Theatre Company’s double bill of The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later as you can.  It’s an impressive achievement, showing the power of what live theater can do, connecting an audience in a deceptively simple way with a moving story of the way we live now.  You probably think you know the story of Laramie.  You’d be wrong.  I was (even though I’d seen both plays before.  There was more to learn). (running in repertory with The Laramie Project, now through November 17, 2018 at the Howard Conn Theater)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(The ensemble of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later - (L-R): Michael Novak, Seth Matz, Tia Tanzer, Baku Campbell, Juliette Aaslestad, Jessica Thompson Passaro and Bruce Manning.  Photo by Shannon TL Kearns)

Review - The Laramie Project - Uprising Theatre - The Whole Country’s Laramie - 5 stars

This review’s going to be hard to write. 

Not because of the production.  Uprising Theatre Company’s production of The Laramie Project is  great.  You should definitely see it.  (And its companion piece, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, also being offered right now by Uprising)

And in a weird way, as hard as it was to watch some of The Laramie Project again, after all these years, most of the time it was just very cathartic to sit through. 

“A Laramie man, found beaten out on the prairie.”

(Some writer friends and I were talking about catharsis this week, in the context of the latest iteration of the Twin Cities Horror Festival.  On some fundamental level, I just don’t “get” horror as a form of entertainment.  I can appreciate the craft but it doesn’t do anything for me.  It just looks from the outside like a bunch of straight white people trying to scare each other.) 

“The only place he didn’t have blood on his face was the place where it appeared he’d been crying.”

Personally, real life right now is terrifying enough.  But I’m a gay man in Trump’s own personal dystopia so… Maybe The Laramie Project is a Twin Cities horror festival for LGBTQ people.  But the reason for watching this story, I understand.  And I feel, if not happy, at least strangely lighter when I come out on the other side of it.  Living through these events again, I understand the point of that.

“The Word is either sufficient, or it is not.”

When I first heard that Uprising Theatre Company was producing the two Laramie Project plays in repertory - the original, and the revisiting of Laramie ten years later - the thing that stunned me the most was that it had been ten years since the “ten years later” play happened. Matthew Shepard’s murder has been a part of my life for twenty years now.  There was a young gay man in the row in front of me in the audience last night who was, at best, a toddler when Matthew was beaten and left for dead.  Now he’s an young adult. Matthew would have been in his early forties, had he lived. 

“Quite frankly, the media descended and there was no time to talk about it anymore.”

I remember where I was when I first heard about Matthew Shepard.  I didn’t hear his name that night.  The friend who mentioned it just knew that it was some college kid out in Wyoming who’d been gay-bashed.  At that point he was still alive, the hospital thought they might be able to save him.  So, sometime between October 7 and October 12, 1998.  The beating happened on the night of October 6th, but no one found Matthew, tied to a fence post out in the middle of nowhere in freezing temperatures, for eighteen hours.  My friend and I were part of the entertainment for some activities at a suburban bookstore in honor of National Coming Out Day.  On the one hand there’s been so much progress in twenty years.  Then you look at it all sideways and squint, and it feels like nothing’s changed at all.  Some days, lately, it feels like the whole country’s Laramie.

“They were kids.  They were two kids.”

For a while there, The Laramie Project was everywhere. Theater companies, large and small, and colleges especially.  It was so ubiquitous for a while, The Laramie Project became a sort of late 20th/early 21st century version of Our Town.  But apparently, twenty years on, it’s been a while, so for the uninitiated, for whom The Laramie Project and Matthew Shepard are more actual history and theater history and not something you lived through, here’s the gist of it…

“What are you gonna do with this story?”

Just a month after the events surrounding the death of Matthew Shepard, Moises Kaufmann and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie, Wyoming to interview the residents of the town, and the people who had been swept up in an incident that ended up having an impact on the conscience of the whole nation.  The people of Laramie were still recovering from the glare of the national spotlight, and what felt like the assault of the news media on their small town of only 27,000 people.  Over the next year and a half, the theater company visited the town six times, conducting and transcribing hundreds of hours of interviews with dozens of residents.  The end result is a sort of documentary style of theater, in which the members of the theater company become characters themselves as well as narrators in the ongoing drama of Laramie.  An ensemble of seven actors (Juliette Aaslestad, Baku Campbell, Bruce Manning, Seth Matz, Michael Novak, Jessica Thompson Passaro, and Tia Tanzer) play over five dozen roles, painting a portrait of an American town turned upside down by a violent act.

“We need to own this crime, I feel.  Everyone needs to own it.”

The directing team of Sarah Catcher and Ashley Hovell, assisted by Emily England, gets strong performances out of the whole ensemble.  And it’s a strong multitude of performances because they’re all moving from one persona to another at what must feel for a performer to be a dizzying pace.  Yet it’s almost never confusing for the audience to follow along both because the script has the identifying information built in, and all the actors are using both their bodies and their voices (in addition to the occasional costume piece or prop) to fully embody each of the many humans they’re charged with creating.  There’s only so many things you can do with the human voice, however, so every now and again I’d have to stop and think (“Wait, is that the priest or the cop?  The cop normally has a mug in his hand, and the priest normally has a rosary but the guy’s not holding any props right now, and they both have kind of the same attitude toward this event so…”)  The fact that this happened so infrequently made the 99 percent of the time I wasn’t the least bit confused that much more impressive.  There’s a LOT of people to juggle in The Laramie Project, and the metaphorical juggling balls might have wobbled here and there, but they still kept them in the air, and the audience could follow along just fine.

“I would like to urge the people of Wyoming against overreacting in a way that gives one group ‘special rights’ over others.”

The Laramie Project is pretty intense subject matter.  But it doesn’t ever feel overwhelming.  This is partly because the whole affair has a kind of documentarian’s detachment in exploring the subject dispassionately, and the people of Laramie aren’t an overly emotional bunch.  We never have to see the attack, we only hear about it after the fact.  I tend to believe that someone trying not to cry is often more effective than someone actually crying.  But then, a young kid got beaten to a pulp, and eventually dies.  If you’re not going to shed a few tears over that, what are tears good for?  Uprising’s production straddles that tricky emotional line very skillfully.

“We said we would meet one last time, out at the fence.”

The production also wisely puts the words and the acting front and center.  The design is simple.  The set is just a collection of black wooden boxes of varying levels and configurations, a couple of black plastic chairs, and a video screen.  All the actors have their own basic outfit on, but it varies among them (it’s not a uniform).  Then there’s a variety of simple costume pieces and props they can add on to help create a new character, but most of it’s done through the acting.  Jake Otto’s lighting design and Daniel Mauleon’s design of projections for the screen onstage assist in setting the time, place and mood as our narrators introduce us to the events and citizens of Laramie, Wyoming.

“And for a moment, I wondered if this is how God feels, looking down on all of us.”

Part of me wondered if The Laramie Project would still hold up as a piece of theater twenty years down the line.  It does.  Not sure if that’s entirely a good thing or a bad thing.  It would be nice if the issues The Laramie Project grapples with were dated and part of our past.  One need only look at last weekend’s news of the government attempt to erase trans people, or this weekend’s news of a deadly gun rampage in a synagogue to know different.  In a way, it’s comforting to engage with The Laramie Project and be able to stop and think, consider the humanity of the people connected by an inhuman act, and perhaps understand.  Thanks to Uprising Theatre Company, The Laramie Project continues its twenty year run as an important and necessary piece of healing theatrical storytelling.  (running in repertory with The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, now through November 17, 2018 at the Howard Conn Theater)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

(Part of The Laramie Project ensemble - front: Seth Matz; back: (L-R) Baku Campbell, Tia Tanzer and Bruce Manning - photography by Shannon TL Kearns)

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Review - Two Degrees - Prime Productions - The Big Thaw, Both Human and Global - 5 stars

Tira Palmquist’s play Two Degrees is that rare and wonderful thing, a really great new play.  Prime Productions’ presentation of Two Degrees in the Dowling Studio at the Guthrie Theater is a production that lives up to a really great script and makes it even better.  Two Degrees pulls off the nifty trick of being about something as big and universal as the fate of the earth, and something as (deceptively) small by comparison as one person’s broken heart.  But the shattered pieces of that heart have an enormous ripple effect on everyone around that character.

“If Greenland goes, the rest of us are f**ked.”

Dr. Emma Phelps (Norah Long) has been summoned to Washington, D.C., by her old friend - now a senator - Louise Allen (Jennifer Whitlock).  Emma is to testify before a Senate panel on the effects of climate change, which she has been studying by examination of ice core samples in Greenland.  While she was away on one such expedition last summer, Emma’s husband Jeffrey (Joel Liestman) died.  Emma’s grief has her seeing Jeffrey’s face on complete strangers, including Louise’s chief of staff, Wilson (also played by Liestman, in a clever bit of double-casting on the part of the author).  In her D.C. hotel, Emma hooks up with a stranger named Clay Simpson (Toussaint Morrison). At first it seems like a one-night stand, but circumstances keep bringing them together in ways that end up being quite surprising.  The play has a few tricks up its sleeve that I won’t give away.  They don’t detract from the seriousness of the subject matter, but they do add a bit of unexpected fun to the proceedings.

“Jonah, it’s sandwiches.  Don’t make it complicated.”

Everyone in the four person ensemble does great work under the direction of Shelli Place, but the play in large part belongs to Norah Long as Emma.  Because of the structure of the play, we see her under increasing pressure in the present, and also through intermittent flashbacks to her life with Jeffrey and her work on the ice in Greenland.  If Long didn’t handle these transitions so smoothly, it might be harder for the audience to follow along.  Because of the strength of Long’s performance, you never get lost in the timeline of the story.  Emma’s grief often makes her a difficult person to deal with, but because the script keeps the audience in the know, even when other characters aren’t, we can understand and forgive her for sometimes being a jerk to other people.

“Are you OK?”
“Yes, no, I don’t know.”
“Congratulations, those are all the answers.”

In fact, everyone has their moments in Two Degrees where they might be less than likable.  But weirdly, it always seems to come from a place of people caring too much, rather than too little.  So even though Louise, Wilson and Clay are all, each in their own way, Washington, D.C. players and pragmatists, they are all, also, working toward some greater good, even if their methods are often at odds with each other, and with Emma.  There aren’t any villains in Two Degrees, just heroes with flaws and baggage (sometimes a lot of both).

“To say what needs saying.  To say what she can’t.”

Joel Liestman digs in to all three of his roles, as the late lamented Jeffrey, senatorial chief of staff Wilson, and even a bit role as one of Emma’s Greenland co-workers on the ice, Malik.  Jeffrey’s face is never far from Emma’s life, past or present.  As Emma’s old friend in a new position, Jennifer Whitlock exudes confidence and gravitas as Louise.  Senator Allen knows how to get things done, and she’s playing a long game.  And if you’re going to rebound after the loss of a great love, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Toussaint Morrison as Clay Simpson.  Clay is good-natured and caring right from the play’s opening scene, and his easy-going charm grows on Emma, long after he’s already got the audience in his back pocket.  And not to treat the man like a piece of meat or anything - he’s a talented actor, everyone here is - but Clay looks equally sharp in a suit, a T-shirt, or… less, and the play features him in all those states.  The guy’s not without his secrets, but he’s still a good guy (and that’s hard to write and even harder sometimes to play on stage, so kudos to writer, director and actor alike on this one).

“When that ice melts, you want land rights so you can go in and start digging.”

Palmquist’s script also wisely chooses to hold back on any in depth discussion of climate change until late in the story.  We get hints, but it’s only after we’re fully invested in all the characters that the real debate about climate change and how to address it begins.  Because we care about the characters, we care about the subject, and we listen.  The script is a vehicle that makes the stakes of climate change specific and personal.  And at that point in the story, we’re willing to listen, because we trust all the messengers, even if they’re arguing for different strategies.  Emma’s professional odyssey through D.C. also becomes a personal odyssey which helps start to thaw her out from where her grief and guilt had left her frozen in place.  Not all warming is bad.

“If 97 percent of mechanics told you the brakes on your car were bad, would you get them fixed, or would you keep driving because it’s just a hunch?”

The staging for this story of multiple timelines and even more locations is quite ingenious and economical.  The back wall of the set is a towering wall of rippled cloth, often lit in a wash of blue, giving off the look and feel of the face of a glacier.  The rest of the stage, and the human activity that passes over it, lives in the shadow of this wall of ice.  But it’s also a surface for projections - of locations in Washington, D.C., or the collapse of an actual melting glacier, the change between night and day, past and present, even the image of Jeffrey haunting his wife in the corner of her mind, large as life.  But Annie Henly’s set isn’t just a surface for the projection of images conjured by Andrew Saboe (projection content) and Andrew Isaacson (image director).  Henly’s design has a platform that serves as many locations both above and below with the simple switch-out of furniture pieces.  And the hotel bed (which, fair warning, gets a lot of action, right from the opening minutes - they don’t have an intimacy coach - Annie Enneking - for nothing) appears and disappears underneath that platform in a fun bit of theater magic between scenes.  Jeni O’Malley’s costumes, Karin Olson’s lights and Anita Kelling’s sound all help reinforce time and place in evocative ways, and there’s even some plaintive original music courtesy of composer Kevin Farrell.

“It’s simply too easy to think we can do nothing.”

Two Degrees from Prime Productions is a great production of a great new script - a sexy, funny, sad, smart, human story with global consequences.  I can’t recommend this play highly enough. (runs through October 21, 2018 in the Dowling Studio)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended