Ambitious and highly successful production
portrayal of one of the young killers was one of many great performances in
this moving play.
By Brian Baxter
The latest- most challenging - production by the Gate Theatre Group
was rewarded with enthusiastic full houses and brought further credit to
this enterprising group and its energetic leader Stephan Turner. Adroitly
guiding his 23 strong cast (playing some 80 characters) through a long
production, he left this viewer in no doubt that The Laramie Project was
their best event so far. It centres around the true story of the brutal,
sexually oriented killing of 21 year old student Matthew Shepard. A
youngster who was ‘the only gay in the village’.
The production was far from a conventional play in that the ‘narrative’,
characterisation and overall theme are slowly revealed using actual words
from the inhabitants of the western town, who were interviewed over a period
of time by members of a theatre group. These testimonies, court records and
reporting were honed by Moises Kaufman into a chilling record of homophobia,
indifference and casual ignorance.
This gives the piece a documentary tone and although the arrangement,
editing and the final performances remove it from any sense of immediacy
into an artistic framework, the effect is quite chilling in that we know the
basic premise is frighteningly accurate. There is an obvious debt to
investigative journalism and the play also resembles the famous Trial of the
Catonsville Nine, in which case the treatment was of a political trial. But
the main influence has to be Truman Capote’s masterpiece In Cold Blood. He
returned to the scene of another horrendous crime (the murder of an entire
family for – unrealised - financial gain). He spent far longer in his
researches and interviews and both the subsequent book (and one of the two
film versions) remains classics which have inspired other works.
The similarities are more than superficial. Both killings were committed by
two young men and seemed equally senseless and savage. They each shook the
local community to its roots and the resultant works were less about the
killings than about society in general: the reactions to the traumatic event
itself. Capote concentrated more on the two guys (to the point of obsession
and falling in love with one of the perpetrators), where The Laramie Project
distils its words into a representative cross section of the inhabitants of
the now infamous town, which became newly famous in October 1998 when Mathew
The Capote killers died on the gallows, the two guys in Laramie escaped that
penalty. One by pleading guilty and the other when- after sentence – he was
finally given life imprisonment ‘thanks’ to the intervention of Mathew’s
father. His speech is one of the play’s best moments as he asks that the
killer recall during his life the fact that the victim will not have the
chance to grow old. It’s a double edged plea for mercy. Possibly the other
major speech comes from a woman who rails against the townspeople who have
complacently said that such things could not happen in a town like Laramie.
But she observes again and again, they did happen. THEY DID HAPPEN!
And here’s the crux of the work, made even more pointedly than in Capote’s
book. Of course the killers are ultimately to blame and they pay the price
set by the courts or society at large. But as Schopenhauer famously
remarked, when society executes a murderer it is like a child who strikes a
chair it has accidentally knocked into and been hurt by.
This ensemble piece subtly builds a portrait of the society who through
ignorance, passivity, bigotry (the various churches and above all the
creationists come out of this very badly as we might expect) and cruelty
have contributed to the young gay man’s death. The lack of tolerance in this
narrow society and sadly society at large are considered as much to blame as
the actual killers. Their actions were the extreme end of such homophobia.
And that word may be replaced by any other form of vile intolerance you
What happened in Laramie had happened in a hundred southern towns where the
victims were black and this can be taken to any scale you wish. Even to the
holocaust where people chose not to ‘notice’ or to act. Crimes like the
student’s murder are not committed in isolation and there is a warning in
this ‘project’ for all of us. I doubt whether anyone leaving the theatre in
Kad Suan Kaew, 15 years after the events the play inspired, will not have
been moved and in some way ‘changed’ by the events recreated. Stephan Turner
and his cast and crew deserve thanks for the production as do the original
theatre group and their director/writer Kaufman.