The Laramie Project Remembers Matthew Shepard, with Sanctimony


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The Laramie Project By Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project
Among the many traps that our intensely politicized, media-glutted age has laid in the way of good art is the tendency to confuse fine intentions with fine results. We all?artists, the art public, even most critics?want to think of ourselves as sensitive, engaged human beings who refuse to be emotionally circumscribed by the "compassion exhaustion" fostered by news and hype cycles.

Moises Kaufman and company's The Laramie Project, constructed from 200 interviews with the people of Laramie, WY, in the wake of Matthew Shepard's murder, is so brimful of estimable intentions that it practically dares you to find fault with it. Transferred to New York from the Denver Center Theater, where it opened in February, it is a work of love and unquestionable earnestness that was obviously of great cathartic value to the cast and writing team, and to some residents of Laramie as well. Its sincerity quickly neutralizes the hint of opportunism implied by the team's rush to Laramie to begin interviewing within a month of the murder. Furthermore, as reported by James Hannaham in last week's Voice, it has already had unusual worldly impact: a man stood up at a recent public hearing of the Laramie City Council, mentioned the play and thus influenced the council to continue considering hate-crime legislation to which it was previously opposed. What more than this can be expected of any play?


Well...plenty. Illumination of reality beyond collected factual data (including emotional data), for instance. Narrative insight beyond extremely familiar and basic journalistic questions. Investment in language (discovered beauties, games, novelties, abuses) beyond the gently judgmental mimicry of rural dialects. Human confrontation (including self-confrontation) whose intensity and integrity are truly enhanced by live performance. That kind of thing.


Set on a bare wooden floor with several plain-wood tables and chairs moved into various configurations against a black brick wall with a large metal door, the two-hour-and-40-minute play is performed in three parts separated by two intermissions (the second of which is superfluous and annoying). The first part establishes the atmosphere of Laramie, the character of Matthew Shepard and his assailants, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, and ends with Shepard's discovery, bound and beaten nearly to death, by a kid on a bicycle, Aaron Kreifels. The second part focuses on public revelation of the crime, local reactions and the explosion of media coverage and public outrage. The third part is about the aftermath: the judgment and sentencing of Henderson and McKinney and wrap-up comments by the characters followed throughout.


Directed by Kaufman, the eight actors play themselves (enacting their attitudes and demeanors while interviewing) and several dozen interviewees distinguished by voice, manner and token pieces of clothing, while various unobtrusive video clips (motel and club signs, a deserted two-lane road at night seen through a windshield, crowds at candlelight vigils) play on a large screen disclosed behind the metal door. The acting of a few characters is exceptional: Stephen Belber's incisive hands-on-hips impression of Matt Galloway, for instance, the comically self-assured bartender who served Shepard, Henderson and McKinney the night of the attack; and Mercedes Herrero's respectfully nerdy portrayal of Reggie Fluty, the sheriff's department officer who cut Shepard down from the fence. Among the many interesting bits of new information the show provides (new to me, at any rate) is that Fluty, having learned that Shepard was HIV positive, was given AZT, which made her lose 10 pounds and much of her hair. ("That is a mean, nasty medicine," she says.)


The overall spirit of the show is of information, uplift and communion. It uses the wide array of characters to create an overview of gay experience in homophobic heartland America and to explain why, even in the face of some local resentment, Shepard's death deserves to be considered an event of historic importance. The perpetrators aren't demonized but treated as all too typical, shortsighted kids who did something horribly impulsive and stupid. A young University of Wyoming acting student named Jedadiah Schultz (played by Andy Paris) sets the moral standard of the evening by recognizing the evil behind his parents' fundamentalist religious teachings over the course of the company's six trips to Laramie. A 21-year-old lesbian friend of Shepard's named Romaine Patterson (Kelli Simpkins) rises to still more exalted moral heights by arranging to surround a homophobic picketer at Matthew's funeral with a group of students carrying giant white angel's wings.


This is all pretty much as straightforward as it sounds. (I also found Kaufman's previous documentary hit Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde a bit plodding and flatly demonstrative, despite the admirable research and righteous spirit, though perhaps I should add that I saw it with Michael Emerson's incompetent understudy.) The closest The Laramie Project comes to dangerously impolite pushing of issues is a single vignette in which a hooded "homey" named Andrew Gomez (Belber), whom McKinney met in jail, jeers about how stupid it is that he and Henderson were so intent on fag-bashing when they're about to be raped in the penitentiary. ("I heard they were auctioning off their asses in max ward...five cartons of cigarettes, six... I'd be scared to go to prison if I was them two boys.")


Interestingly enough, two of the show's most moving moments are from found texts rather than company interviews: the tearful public announcement of Shepard's death by Rulon Stacey (Greg Pierotti), CEO of the Poudre Valley Hospital, and the remarkable, painfully difficult statement by Dennis Shepard (John McAdams), Matthew's father, at McKinney's trial asking that he be sentenced to life rather than death. In any case, it's always something of a red flag when a character comes out and more or less announces the main theme of the evening like a walking Cliff's Note, as does Zubaida Ula (Barbara Pitts), an anomalously irreverent Muslim woman from Laramie: "We need to mourn the fact that we live in a world where shit like this happens... We need to own this crime... We are like this."


I have no doubt whatever that the sheer Our Town-ish wholesomeness of The Laramie Project will carry it along on the wings of New York's hype machine for a healthy while. How much more powerful it could've been, though, I kept thinking, had Kaufman found some way to probe his subjects and issues a little deeper than his admittedly inexperienced company was able to do. Again and again, this piece leaves the impression of not fulfilling the promise of its company's much-vaunted search for complex character and richly conflicting views and questions. So much of the script is satisfied with such pedestrian details as a waitress' abbreviation of "shit out of luck" as "S.O.L." that one eventually loses interest in the company members' judgments and internal journeys. After all, if they were so passive, polite or fearful that they couldn't press for juicier answers than these, how risky and profound can their self-explorations have been? Anna Deavere Smith would have thrown out half of this text and gone back a seventh or an eighth time in search of better tapes.


The thinness of this self-referential content is what gives The Laramie Project its slightly self-congratulatory air and makes it seem as if the whole thing would've worked equally well, or better, on video. The piece's other major weakness is its characterization of Matthew Shepard?via the words of friends and acquaintances only (he never appears himself)?which is unforgivably sketchy, considering the amount of time and energy everyone else spends minutely analyzing his alleged actions the night of the attack. He remains simply and forever that iconic gay kid from Wyoming with the big smile?but what was he like beyond his demographics? How did he survive to age 21 in that environment? The show offers few clues.


It's strange but true that in political drama of all kinds, the fairer one tries to be, the more unfair one invariably appears to be, because the light hand makes all sides feel misrepresented. This is the larger truth behind Brecht's theater of multiple choices (which Kaufman has said he is striving for here): it isn't a scrupulously fair-minded smorgasbord of tentatively formulated opinions but rather a deliberately inflammatory collision of strongly opposed views and irreconcilable realities. That's what makes people feel that, in the end, they have to decide.


Union Square Theater, 100 E. 17th St. (betw. Union Square E. & Irving Pl.), 307-4100, through Sept. 3.


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