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‘The Laramie Project’

Examining hate, pity, tolerance and acceptance

Posted: July 20, 2012 6:00 a.m.
Updated: July 20, 2012 6:00 a.m.

Left to right, actors Michael Bruce, Julie Henderson and Nathan Inzerillo in a scene from "The Laramie Project."

 

The Repertory East Playhouse is known for producing a couple plays each year that carry serious, thought-provoking messages, and that are well out of the mainstream in terms of style, content or both. “The Laramie Project,” which opened last Friday at the REP, fits in this last category. Not only is the message an important one, causing you to search your own soul, the “story” is more an uncovering of events than it is a plot, and this is brought to us through multiple, brief speeches from numerous characters — speeches that are taken from real-life interviews.

Here’s the synopsis: In October 1998, Matthew Shepard (a young gay man) was kidnapped, severely beaten and left to die, tied to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyo. Five weeks later, Moisés Kaufman and fellow members of the Tectonic Theater Project went to Laramie, and over the course of the next year, conducted more than 200 interviews with people of the town. From these interviews, they wrote the play “The Laramie Project, a chronicle of the life of the town of Laramie in the year after the murder.”

Labeled as a hate crime, the sequences of events leading up to this terrible incident, the incident itself, and the investigations, confrontations and court trials that followed, are explored through a large number of these interviews. But, even more interesting, are the widely differing attitudes about the event that are thusly revealed. And you find yourself understanding, if not agreeing with, all of those attitudes. Hence the soul-searching: Which perspectives would I (do I) have on these issues?

In his director’s note, Director Christopher Chase wrote: “In a perfect world, ‘The Laramie Project’ would be a period piece that made us grateful for the level of acceptance we currently enjoy. This is not the case, so ‘Laramie’ offers a sobering look at the attitudes that still exist, almost 15 years after Matthew Shepard was murdered. We are taught to strive for ‘tolerance,’ but this play urges you to, instead, seek ‘acceptance’ …. Find the moments in this play that showcase hate, those that show tolerance and those that embrace acceptance, and see which attitude describes the world you want to live in.”

In terms of style, Chase said that, traditionally, this play is presented as a line of chairs, with the people sitting on them standing to make their speeches. But he changed things up to make receiving the thought-provoking messages a bit more palatable. “I’ve tried to give it a flow, instead of a stoic New York Black Box performance, so it has a relatable warmth, to make it easier to digest something you don’t want to hear,” he said.

With “Wyoming” images appearing on a video screen, some small costume changes, and the interviewers and interviewees changing “settings,” things are still minimalist, however.

The 12 actors in this production each play multiple roles, which, for me, was a little bit hard to follow sometimes. But each actor should be commended for the heaps of dialogue memorized and the varying attitudes and personas he or she brought to the different characters.

“It’s the hardest play to memorize that I’ve ever read,” Chase said. “And the cast gets it right every time — including the ‘and’s and ‘umm’s.”

With that in mind, I will single out a few of the cast members for special commendation.

Christina Rideout who, among other characters, played Reggie Fluty, the policewoman who discovered Matthew at the fence, “was” each character she played, and poignantly so. Michael Bruce brought a force of energy to his roles and Doris Martin was good fun in hers, bringing some needed lightness to the production.

Though this play doesn’t have a plot, per se, there still are emotional arcs, especially in the second act, where you will be touched. In any case, do not go lightly to “The Laramie Project,” but do expect to come away thinking, and possibly with a new perspective.

“The Laramie Project” continues at the REP for two more weekends — on Fridays, July 20 and 27, and Saturdays, July 21 and 28 at 8 p.m., and Sunday, July 22 at 2 p.m. For tickets call 661-288-0000 or visit www.repeastplayhouse.org. The theater is located at 24266 Main St., Newhall, CA 91321.

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