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Arts - Entertainment

The Laramie Project

Ambitious and highly successful production

The chilling 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 was killed.
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 choose.
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.

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The Laramie Project