Sunday, October 28, 2018

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)

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