THEATRE REVIEW: The Laramie Project

DOCUDRAMA: Nathan Villaverde, Sam Robinson and Eden Scott keep alive the story of Matthew Shepard’s violent death in Laramie. THE LARAMIE PROJECT

Presented by: Hunter TAFE’s Regional Institute of Performing Arts

Venue: Civic Playhouse, Newcastle

Season: Ended Saturday

THE brutal beating and subsequent death of a 21-year-old gay university student in the Wyoming town of Laramie in 1998 led to playwright Moises Kaufman and actors from a New York theatre group conducting 200 interviews with Laramie residents over 18months.

Kaufman drew on their comments, as well as media reports and court documents when the two men who killed Matthew Shepard were put on trial, in writing this play.

Though The Laramie Project is very much a docudrama, with the 13 student actors in this production playing 60 characters, the text and performances made it a down-to-earth and moving story about the reactions of ordinary people to unfortunate events.

The actors sat on chairs, rising and addressing the audience when their characters made an appearance.

The tale began with members of Kaufman’s team explaining why they had come to Laramie.

This was followed by members of the community saying what a relaxed lifestyle they had in the town of 26,687 people, with one saying that the family’s children were allowed to play outside until 10 at night. At story’s end, however, it was clear that people had become more vigilant and cautious.

Shepard is never seen, but the comments of friends and acquaintances allowed the audience to share their regrets about what happened to him. There also was a sense of outrage among the audience on the night that I saw the show when anti-gay protesters, led by religious zealot Fred Phelps, picket Shepard’s funeral, waving ‘‘God hates fags’’ signs.

Director David Brown used projections of photos taken at the funeral to underline the picketers’ appalling behaviour, with subsequent pictures of Laramie people dressed in white and wearing wings in a subsequent ‘‘angels’ protest’’ against Phelps’s inappropriate conduct, showing that hundreds of Laramie residents at least did not share his views.

Though some of the comments made about Shepard indicated ambivalence about his sexuality, people’s words for the most part showed concern at his violent death.

The hospital doctor, who spoke to the media about Shepard’s condition, and Reggie Fluty, the policewoman who found Shepard, couldn’t believe anyone would be treated the way he was.

And, in a moving address to a court, Shepard’s father appeals for one of his son’s killers not to be given a death penalty.

The actors in this Laramie Project were Thomas Gorton, Sam DeLyall, Astra-Lia England, Cara Pooles, Eden Scott, Brody Davidson, Ryan Burrett, Nathan Villaverde, Peter Drozdov, Sam Robinson, John Lopez, Precila Selui and Caitlin Allen. They made this a story to remember.