It seems more than fitting that the one-night staged reading of The Laramie Project, a devised theater piece by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project, was held within the specially designed walls of the Engelman Recital Hall. After all, this is a work about the reverberations of voices and murmurs from behind one’s back, so there seems to be no better place to have this profile of a small town microcosm in the wake of a tragedy than in a space built with its acoustics in mind.
That is not to say that the 14-person cast helmed by first-time director Maxim Ibadov needed any special arrangements.
Docudrama is a difficult genre to master, but if the years have proven anything, it is that Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project mastered the form a long time ago with their first piece, Gross Indecency, a recollection of the trials of Oscar Wilde.
Their rigorous approach to text, consisting of splicing and retelling actual sections of human speech rather than creating their own, has long proven to be a boon to the theater world that changed the face of what drama can offer. There is a reason the genre is called verbatim theater, and Kaufman’s work proves that spoken word can be just as powerful as conceived
If “all the world’s a stage,” then the Tectonic Theater Project made sure that it was the world one saw on that stage. Over the years they have devised several pieces with similar methods, many of which tested the bounds of human experience and, just as often, its frailty. The Laramie Project stands as yet another one of the jewels in a crown of masterpieces.
In 1998, Matthew Shepard, a gay student from the University of Wyoming, was discovered nearly beaten to death and tied to a fence, abandoned by his attackers. The small town of Laramie, Wyoming — a place where everyone seems to know one another that is usually blessed with an unusual tranquility — faced the reckoning of such an event.
Media poured into the town, much to the chagrin of the townsfolk who felt that their privacy was suddenly under attack.
The national spotlight shined right onto the place where an innocent young man had died from his injuries. Laramie was no longer just another small town in the middle of nowhere; it was the sight of a man-made tragedy.
The relevance of this piece would be easy to overlook if not for the wellspring of emotion carved out by Ibadov and his cast. The power of a docudrama like The Laramie Project is in showcasing the instances of the real and the painful, every slur and every act of love that the widest range of human experience can conjure.
The intimate reading was quite the conjuration, with the incredibly simple lighting grid of the Engelman Recital Hall used to
create loneliness, community,
recognition and despair.
Threadbare costumes allowed the actors to shed skins and put those layers back on again in an ever-shifting chorus of interviews, transcripts and testimonials flowing and ebbing like a melting river. It is an effective narrative technique in recreating the memory of a character one does not meet in the play itself: the victim, Matthew.
The beauty is the memory it forges with word and voice, slowly putting the colors together to make a portrait of Matthew in a way many writers of fiction might learn a thing or two from.
This, for many productions, would have been an impossible feat if not for the wonderful cast and crew Ibadov cultivated. Tomas Anderson, with a vitality that many seasoned veterans of the stage should envy, carefully yet smoothly transplants himself from the voices of those like the playwright Kaufman himself to one of Matthew’s killers, Aaron McKinney. During one particularly harrowing moment, McKinney’s confession regarding his motivation and his reaction toward his arraignment becomes something of a consistent pump of energy that only Anderson is capable of.
Similarly, ensemble member Conor Murray’s steady drum of a voice makes his representations of the likes of the infamous Fred Phelps beat like a familiar, if uncomfortable, rhythm. Peysakh Shalumov bears the performing chops to bend smoothly between characters like Jedadiah Schultz, the kindhearted theater student at the University of Wyoming and the author of a particularly vicious anonymous letter that lambasts the university’s president, played with a charming yet appropriate sense of being beleaguered by Andy Marcillo, for his apparent inaction.
Other particular highlights include Stephanie Venetsky, whose portrayal of the boy who found Matthew likely sent a collective chill up the audience’s spine as audience members contemplated someone so innocent discovering something so gruesome.
Her sudden pleas for an unconscious Matthew to respond felt like a bolt of lightning in a storm, providing one of the much-needed narrative buckets of ice water in the comparatively warm production. Aziza Zaitova’s seamless shifts between a progressive Muslim woman constantly harangued about her hijab and a newcomer lesbian university professor show the hallmarks of someone with a talent for crisp transitions.
A director’s ultimate goal, above all else, is to reveal the unseen in the invisibility of language. For a first-time director, Ibadov managed to mine something valuable from the repository of talent that is this cast.
Of special note is Jessica Horowitz’s dramaturgical rigor, no doubt invaluable in the creation of the play’s world.
Aside from a few unintentionally quiet moments and some superfluous projections, The Laramie Project shines like the brightest star.