A little after midnight on 7 October, 1998, a young gay university student named Matthew Shepard met Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie, Wyoming. A short time later, after accepting a ride home from the two young men, Matthew was robbed, pistol-whipped and tortured, tied to a fence several miles outside Laramie, and left to die.
After being found by a passing cyclist some 18 hours later, Matthew was taken to hospital but died of his injuries at 12:53am on 12 October, 1998. He was 21 year old.
Matthew Shepard’s brutal murder sent shockwaves around the world, and highlighted the violence many LGBT people face on a daily basis. Among those affected by his death were playwright and director Moisés Kaufman, the founder of New York’s Tectonic Theatre Project. Four weeks after Matthew’s murder, Kaufman and 11 members of the company made the first of several trips to Wyoming in order try and understand exactly how, and why, such a shocking crime had happened in Laramie.
The company made repeated visits over the next two years, during which time they conducted over 200 interviews with the Laramie townsfolk. The result of their labours was a remarkable work of verbatim theatre which premiered in Denver in February 2000: The Laramie Project.
Mockingbird Theatre, a new Melbourne company, has chosen The Laramie Project as their debut production. The company’s Artistic Director, Chris Baldock, had previously directed the play in 2004 and 2005 – the latter version winning a Green Room Award for Best Independent Production that same year.
For his latest production of the play, Baldock has cast eight actors, who between them play over 90 characters, ranging from Tectonic Theatre members to Laramie townsfolk – including police officers, priests, bar staff from the Fireside Lounge, a limousine driver, friends and family of Matthew Shepard and his killers, and even the two men accused of the crime. They do so without props or costumes, relying purely on acting talent to differentiate their various roles.
The stage is likewise bare save for eight chairs and a backdrop depicting a cloudy sky, focussing the audience’s attentions solely on the actors and their dialogue. A sombre, haunting soundscape (featuring tracks from film scores, including American Beauty) and a subdued yet striking lighting design further emphasise the unfolding drama.
The script itself is a work of art. A remarkable cross-section of Laramie and its inhabitants, it explores the town’s prejudices, fears, guilt and grief in incremental yet forensic detail. Some moments reinforce the audience’s prejudices about small town life; others – such as a scene in which a Catholic priest is revealed as one of the most compassionate men in town rather than the anti-gay bigot we might expect – confront them.
Not every actor impresses in every role, but all have at least one breakthrough moment, when they are utterly, heartbreakingly convincing as at least one of the many characters they play. Adam Ward was particularly impressive as an older gay man seeing a new side of Laramie in the wake of Matthew’s death; Luke McKenzie’s gruff police officer in charge of the murder investigation had a compelling and convincing story arc; and the dynamic between Tamara Donnellan as police officer Reggie Fluty and Debra Low as her concerned mother was especially engaging. Donnellan also impresses in a very different role, as the narrow-minded Sherry Johnson, one of the few real villains of the piece.
On opening night there was a vague sense of the actors not quite trusting in the emotional truth of their roles and consequently slightly overplaying some of the play’s stronger moments. Conversely, all dealt well with occasional interruptions (a noisy possum in the roof and not one but two phones going off at the play’s emotional climax) while fluffed lines were few and far between despite the demanding script and only two and a half week’s rehearsal. Performances will surely become even more assured and affecting as the play settles into its run.
The real star, however, is director Chris Baldock, whose confident aesthetic and minimal mise-en-scene give this production much of its power. Stark, assured and controlled, his direction emphasises the play’s quiet dignity, stripping away histrionics and big gestures to focus on the raw pain at the heart of this unforgettable story of small town prejudice and murder.
The Laramie Project is highly recommended – as are tissues or a hanky for audience members; on opening night, there was barely a dry eye in the house.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Mockingbird Theatre present
The Laramie Project
By Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theatre Project
Director: Chris Baldock
Assistant Director: Melanie Rowe
Lighting Designer: Douglas Montgomery
Sound Designer: Chris Baldock
Cast: Maggie Chrétien, Tamara Donnellan, Christian Heath, Debra Low, Luke McKenzie, Scott Middleton, Sarah Reuben and Adam Ward
Chapel off Chapel, Prahran
26 October – 11 November
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