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This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on July 12, 2000. All rights reserved.
Broadway Review: `The Laramie Project’
Docudrama doesn’t get much better than in "The
Laramie Project," a series of dramatic interviews that arose from
the horrifying events surrounding the fatal 1998 beating of Matthew
Shepard, a gay college student in Laramie, Wyoming. As recreated and
performed by eight members of Moises Kaufman’s award-winning Tectonic
Theater Project, the same group that brought journalistic flair to
"Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde," "The
Laramie Project" imparts no subjective ideology or opinions. What
it does do, with confidence and theatrical expertise, is configure
the opinions and attitudes of a cross-section of ordinary people,
citizens of Laramie, population 26,687, into a riveting and enlightening
The young man on a bicycle who discovers Shepard’s brutalized body;
the sheriff’s deputy who arrives on the scene and inadvertently comes
in contact with the still-breathing, blood-soaked H.I.V. infected
victim who had been tied to a fence; a lesbian waitress; the bartender
who was the last person to see Shepard; and a gay university professor
are just some of the people whose statements and responses to the
tragedy define a town and its ethos. Even the positions of the anti-gay
protester-preacher, and the more conciliatory Roman Catholic priest
are represented without reproach. Neither Shepard, the theater student
whose parents could not bring themselves to see his performance in
"Angels in America," nor his killers, Russell A. Henderson
and Aaron J. McKinney (whose grandmother has her say), are the main
focus. But, they remain foremost as symbols in this exploration into
the nature and nurturing of hate.
The actors traveled to Laramie on six different occasions to interview
over 200 people, 60 of whom they portray. That they never appear to
betray or condescend to the diverse and idiosyncratic natures of their
subjects is one of the play’s distinctions. In the light of their
visit, in the midst of what had become a media frenzy, the company
was, nevertheless, able to extract from the guardedly open interviewees
what life was, is and will possibly never be again in this corner
Designer Robert Brill’s somber setting, with only a row of wooden
chairs as props, makes a statement appropriately in tone with the
openness and sparseness of the Project wherein the actors, often performing
multiple roles, are either seated or standing. After an exposition
in which the actors explain their mission and intent, the story unfolds
without pretension but with journalistic persistence. We can deduce
how the values of old-fashioned homogenous simplicity in this once
prime pasture and prairie town has been unsettled by an encroaching
world of arts and letters, have and have-nots, outsiders and strangers.
Considering that the company has not attempted to embellish or distort
the words of the actual people involved, there is a compelling honesty
to the text. This honesty, which is notably free of emotional content,
allows us to see the people of Laramie in the light of their own perceptions
about normalcy and decency. There is even humor woven into the interviewees’
instinctive distrust of the project, something not lost by Kaufman
and Leigh Fondakowski, and the dozen or so writers, dramaturgs, and
— Simon Saltzman
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